In re Estate of Haviland

255 P.3d 854 (2011)

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Court of Appeals of Washington

“The party challenging the will must prove undue influence by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence.”

—Leach, Judge


James W. Haviland was a medical doctor who was a professor and dean of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. He also maintained a lucrative private medical practice for more than 30 years. Haviland and his wife Marion had four children. During the course of their marriage, Haviland and his wife had accumulated an estate of millions of dollars. When Marion died, the couple’s assets were distributed to several trusts whose beneficiaries were Haviland’s four children and several charitable organizations.
At 85 years of age, Haviland was admitted to a hospital to treat a leg injury. While there, he met then 35-year-old Mary, a hospital nurse assistant. Haviland and Mary continued to see each other after his release from the hospital. Three months later Haviland gave Mary more than $400,000. Another three months later, Haviland created a trust that would leave Mary $500,000 upon his death.
Less than one year later, Haviland and Mary were married. Two years later, Haviland transferred $765,000 from a trust for his children to a trust for Mary. Over the course of their marriage, millions of dollars of Haviland’s separate assets were transferred to Mary’s separate checking account, and to the couple’s joint checking account, which provided that the funds would transfer to the surviving party upon one of their deaths. In addition, Haviland’s retirement accounts were cashed in and a substantial sum of money was given to Mary’s children from a prior marriage.
In 2006, when Haviland was 95 years old, Mary telephoned an attorney to advise the attorney that Haviland wanted to change his prior will, which had left his estate to his children. Mary typed a letter to the attorney outlining the revisions to be made. The new will left the remainder of Haviland’s estate to a trust for Mary’s benefit. The attorney met Haviland for five minutes before the will signing. In the course of his involvement with Mary, Haviland’s children had been effectively disinherited. Haviland died in 2007.
When Mary submitted the 2006 will for probate, Haviland’s children challenged the will based on Mary’s alleged undue influence over their father. At trial, witnesses and expert witnesses testified that Haviland suffered from a decline of mental faculties for years, and later from dementia and then Alzheimer’s disease.
Witnesses testified that Haviland suffered from severe Alzheimer’s at the time he made the 2006 will. Based on the evidence, the trial court determined that the 2006 will was the product of Mary’s undue influence, and that Mary did not present evidence to rebut this finding. Thus, Haviland’s prior will that left his assets to his children was valid. Mary appealed.


Did Mary engage in undue influence?

Language of the Court

The party challenging the will must prove undue influence by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. Clear, cogent, and convincing evidence establishes that the will signed by Dr. James Haviland on January 19, 2006 was the product of ongoing undue influence by Mary. Specifically, Mary argues she presented evidence that Haviland was alert and in good mental health at the time of the will signing. But this argument does not survive scrutiny


The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding of undue influence.

Ethics Questions

Did Mary act ethically in this case? Was this an easy case to decide?


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