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Undue Influence | The Danger of Deathbed Transfers

Undue Influence | The Danger of Deathbed TransfersThere's a reason that deathbed transfers of estate or trust assets are more likely to be contested. And the story you're about to hear just provides further confirmation. Eleanor Potter was 89 when she died in 2015 at her residence in Maine. By all accounts, she led a good life. She was married for 41 years to Newell Potter, the owner of a local furniture store in Maine, and though they had no children, the Potters enjoyed a wide circle of friends. Eleanor worked at IBM for 40 years, she was active in local civic organizations, the couple traveled extensively, and she and her husband collected art and antiques.

Through a lifetime of work, the Potters accrued a fair amount of wealth. At the time of her death, and after accounting for all other bequests, Eleanor's estate had $3.3 million left over in art and cash. In a will drawn up in March 2014, Potter made the Portland Museum of Art the "remainder" beneficiary of her estate. However, seven months later, in October 2014, she apparently changed her mind. She signed a new estate plan with a new set of lawyers naming her longtime caretaker, Annemarie Germain, as the new "remainder" beneficiary, with the Portland Museum of Art receiving nothing.

When Potter died, the museum decided that an injustice had been done. They hired an attorney who sued the caregiver, Annemarie Germain, claiming that she had exerted control over Potter with threats and coaching. The case went to trial, where Germain's lawyer countered that Potter left the bequest as a way to reward her for loyal service. Her lawyer rejected the claim that Germain controlled Potter, or that she persuaded her to change her will. In fact, he pointed out that Potter went to see her doctor the day after signing the new will, and her doctor noted that she was in excellent spirits. There was no suggestion that she was being unduly influenced, he said.

Last month, in July 2019, a nine-member jury in Maine disagreed and sided with the Museum. The jury awarded the Museum the original $3.3 million bequest, as well as a $1 million punitive award against the caretaker. In a statement released after the verdict, the museum said that it "...did not take the decision to file this lawsuit lightly but felt compelled to do so given the evidence of the serious nature of the conduct before it."

Whether the story ends here or not remains to be seen; Germain may yet decide to appeal the verdict.

What this case does clearly demonstrate is that when people change wills and beneficiaries right before they die, almost regardless of the amount involved, the odds that someone will seek to reverse that decision go up dramatically. No estate is completely bullet-proof, but as this case and others like it clearly show, the time to draft a new will is usually not when someone is at or near 90 years old.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my first book, The Wolf at the Door, or my new book, Alzheimer's, Widowed Stepmothers & Estate Crimes. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected], and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

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