In 1998, Vincent Antanavich signed a will giving his estate to his brothers, Joseph and Bernard. In 2017, he signed a new will, revoking the prior one, and giving his estate to his neighbors and friends, John Mazzella and Cheryl Peel. After Vincent died in October 2022, Joseph and Bernard challenged Vincent’s second will claiming that it was improperly executed, Vincent lacked testamentary capacity when he signed it, and that it was procured by undue influence and fraud.
The standard way to challenge a will is to file an Affidavit of Objections pursuant to M.G.L. c. 190B, section 1-401 (e) containing “specific facts and grounds upon which the objection is based.” In Estate of Vincent Antanavich (Mass. Probate and Family Court, Fiduciary Litigation Section Docket No. ES 22P3116) Joseph and Bernard filed such an affidavit.
The proponents of a will may then move to strike the objections arguing that even if all the allegations in the affidavit are true, it does not state sufficient grounds to overturn the will. John and Cheryl filed such a motion to strike Joseph and Bernard’s objections.
No Facts Stated to Justify Claims
In its ruling on the motion to strike, the Probate Court strikes all the objections except for the one arguing undue influence. Vincent suffered from cerebral palsy but had worked as draftsman. With respect to its claim that Vincent lacked testamentary capacity, the affidavit stated that the illness causes more rapid physical and mental deterioration than occurs with people not suffering from cerebral palsy, but provides no information about Vincent’s status when executed the new will. The Court concludes that Joseph and Bernard “base their information on their belief without specific facts,” and strikes their testamentary capacity objection.
Joseph and Bernard’s claims regarding improper execution and fraud appear to be based on even weaker evidence. The will was signed by Vincent, two witnesses and a notary complying with all the requirements of M.G.L. c. 190B, section 2-502. Joseph and Bernard state their belief that the will execution did not meet these standards without any evidence to back up their contention. The Court points out that Vincent “never apparently sought to change [his will] in the five years before his death.
Apparently Joseph and Bernard neglected to make any specific allegations in their affidavit with respect to their claim of fraud.
Except for Undue Influence
In contrast to the above claims, the Court finds that Joseph and Bernard state that Vincent was assisted by Cheryl and John, that he “was not careful with his money and was susceptible to third parties’ influence and persuasion, having on two occasions expended large amounts of money ($300,000) in one instance for no apparent value in return.” They also allege that he was becoming increasingly dependent. The Court finds these allegations are sufficiently specific to keep the claim of undue influence alive and orders that the parties proceed to the discovery stage of their litigation.
The reader can draw one of two conclusions from the rejection of the bulk of Joseph and Bernard’s claims. The first is that if you throw enough allegations against the wall, perhaps one will stick and permit your case to proceed.
The second and perhaps better conclusion is that for any objection to a will to survive challenge it must contain statements of specific facts which if proved would justify the court’s rejection of the will. Simple statements of belief without facts that would substantiate such beliefs are insufficient to successfully challenge a will. The probate court process of requiring an affidavit and permitting its challenge, as played out in this case, is designed to dispense with frivolous claims in a relatively efficient manner.