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How Not to Enter Into an Agreement to be Paid for Services

After John P. Urban died in 2019 at age 97, a close family friend attempted to challenge his will and substitute an agreement he had signed providing her with payment for services she had provided. In In the Matter of the Estate of John P. Urban (Mass. App. Ct. No. 22-P-21, February 13, 2023), the Massachusetts Appeals Court upholds the probate court’s decision validating Urban’s will and invalidating the agreement in question.

The Story

For almost 20 years, Urban divided his time between Hanover, Massachusetts, and Naples, Florida. In Florida, Urban stayed in a guest house behind the home of Michelle Finnegan’s parents. While he stayed there he frequently socialized with the Finnegans.

Between 2013 and 2016, Urban executed four wills with up to 18 beneficiaries, including Finnegan, her parents, his alma mater, Middlebury College, a close friend, Dr. Geoff Emerson, and the John P. Urban Scholarship Fund dedicated to providing scholarships to local high school students. The wills adjusted some of the bequests up and down. In all but the last instance, Emerson drove Urban to meet with the attorney, Daniel Singleton, but did not participate in any of their meetings or the execution of the wills. Urban, Emerson and Singleton were all friends and members of the Cohasset Golf Club.

In 2014, Urban was diagnosed with dementia. By 2016, he had moved to a nursing home. In September of that year, Finnegan came up to Massachusetts to visit him and had him sign an agreement that “acknowledged that over the course of the last approximately 20 years, [Urban] has not paid [Finnegan] for the care giving she provided for him while he was living in Florida.” It provided that Finnegan would be the “exclusive beneficiary” and personal representative of Urban’s estate.

The Burden of Proof

After Urban died, Singleton filed a petition to probate the 2016 will. Finnegan objected and filed a claim for $5 million. In 2020, the John P. Urban Scholarship Fund filed a motion for summary judgment. The probate court granted the motion finding that Finnegan did not meet her burden of proving that the 2016 will had been procured through undue influence.

On appeal, Finnegan argues that the burden to prove undue influence should not have been on her but instead on the proponents of the will to prove its absence because Emerson was Urban’s agent under a durable power of attorney, a beneficiary of the will and, with his wife, a trustee of the scholarship fund. Under Massachusetts law, if a fiduciary is involved in the creation of a will, the burden of proof switches from the challenger of the will to the proponents.

Here, the Court finds that although Emerson was a fiduciary, he did not insert himself into the attorney-client relationship between Urban and Singleton: “Here, there is no evidence that Dr. Emerson intruded on the attorney-client relationship between Urban and Attorney Singleton. Although Dr. Emerson drove Urban to Attorney Singleton’s office in 2013, 2014, and 2015, he did not drive the legal relationship between Urban and Attorney Singleton.” While in 2016, on Urban’s request, Emerson called Singleton about revising his will, the changes did not affect the bequest to Emerson, so was not to his advantage. In fact, the changes reduced the amount that would go to the scholarship fund.

Testamentary Capacity

In terms of Urban’s capacity to execute a new will in 2016 despite his 2014 diagnosis of dementia, the Court finds no reason to question the testimony of Singleton, the witnesses to the will, and Urban’s caregiver that Urban had testamentary capacity. The caregiver, who drove Urban to the appointment at Singleton’s office, testified that “Mr. Urban was clear headed and focused. . . . Mr. Urban immediately recognized Attorney Singleton.” She further attested that “Mr. Urban was neither delusional nor confused.”

Discussing the conflict between the dementia diagnosis and the testimony of those present when Urban executed his new will, the Court states:

To be sure, Urban suffered from dementia, and we do not doubt that a person might be so far afflicted that medical records could demonstrate that he could not have had testamentary capacity at the relevant time. Here, however, the medical records do not reflect this stage of the disease. Rather, records from April 1, 2016, reflect that, when Urban was sent to the hospital with enzyme issues, he was “confused.” When assessed, apparently at the nursing home, three days after the will signing, he had “self-feeding difficulty.” Given the variable nature of dementia, these records do not overcome the specific testimony regarding Urban’s condition on May 3, 2016, and thus do not create a genuine issue of material fact.

The Finnegan Agreement

The Court also upholds the disallowance of Finnegan’s claim for payment under the agreement she had had prepared for Urban to sign after he moved to a nursing home. In contrast with the burden of proof for the will, the Court holds that the burden of proving that Urban’s signature on the agreement was not procured by undue influence was on Finnegan because it constituted an “unnatural disposition” since it was contrary to the four wills he executed over several years, all of which were largely consistent. Finnegan had testified that when she presented the agreement to Urban, he “at least looked at it, but [she] d[id]n’t know now if he was able to read it.” She couldn’t remember “whether she read it out loud to Urban at the time.” This was far from sufficient to meet her burden.

The moral of the story: Don’t try to make an end run around an individual’s long-established attorney-client estate planning relationship.

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