On occasion, one person will exploit their influence over another to gain an advantage over possessions and an estate when the second person dies. It is often difficult to prove that someone influenced a testator to change their will against their intentions, especially after the testator is deceased. However, in Kozak Estate, 2018 ABQB 185, the Court considered such a situation and found that it had indeed occurred.
What Happened in Kozak Estate?
Ted Kozak was a 72 year-old bachelor when he met Maryann Seafoot. A few years before meeting Maryann, Ted had executed a will naming his sister as his executor and beneficiary. In the two months after meeting Maryann, Ted sold the multi-generation family farm where he had lived his entire life, bought a new acreage, moved in with Maryann, and signed a new will appointing Maryann as executor and sole beneficiary. Ted made a second will about 16 months later that again named Maryann as executor and sole beneficiary, and her son as the alternate executor and beneficiary if Maryann predeceased him.
After Ted died, his sister challenged both wills Ted made after he met Maryann, arguing that Maryann had unduly influenced Ted into changing his will in Maryann’s favour. The Court had to determine whether Maryann exercised undue influence over Ted during their relationship and whether Ted changed his will of his own volition.
What is Undue Influence in an Estate Context?
The Court in Kozak Estate found that undue influence is not bad influence, but coercion – undue influence occurs when the testator makes a will that does not reflect their wishes because they feel like they have to. A will made under undue influence is not valid.
How Will a Court Determine if there is Undue Influence?
Undue influence occurs in a relationship where there is an imbalance between the two parties that one of them seeks to take advantage of. Often, the weaker party is older and wealthier, but not very healthy. It can happen in a romantic relationship, but it can also happen between friends, between a caregiver and patient, or between a child and parent. The stronger party seeks to manipulate, coerce, or influence the weaker party. The stronger party might take advantage of the weaker party’s dependence to get them to transfer wealth, property, bank accounts, etc. or to change estate documents in favour of the strong party.
In Kozak Estate, the Court looked at the history of the relationship, looked for a mechanism of control and whether there was evidence of acts of control, and examined indicia of manipulation, including isolation and changes to Ted’s personality.
The Court found Maryann controlled Ted through a promise of marriage and used this to manipulate him into providing economic benefits to her. Therefore, the Court found that on a balance of probabilities, Maryann unduly influenced Ted, and the new wills he made resulted from her undue influence.
Predatory relationships involve a stronger person taking advantage of a weaker person, often for economic advantage. It is extremely difficult to prove undue influence in an estate context, because people are free to choose who to love and sometimes they make poor choices. The difficulty arises in showing there is an extra control that pushes the relationship into the arena of legal concern. Evidence of that level of control can be very hard to come by since these operations are carried out in private. Kozak Estate is a rare example of a sister who was able to prove that her brother was the victim of undue influence.
The Court found that Ted was lonely and enthusiastic about his new relationship with Maryann. However, the Court found that there was no evidence of a loving relationship between Ted and Maryann. Ted and Maryann did the things that Maryann liked to do, even early in their relationship they fought enough that Ted went to look for a cot to sleep on in a garage, Maryann visited friends rather than visiting Ted in hospital, she did not know how often, how long, or why he was in hospital, she seldom visited him after he was moved to an extended living facility, she failed to bring him personal items to make him more comfortable even after she was asked to do so, she did not help him seek assistance, and over the course of their short relationship tens of thousands of dollars were spent in contrast to Ted’s previously frugal lifestyle. The Court found a substantial pre-death transfer of wealth from Ted to Maryann, and found that Maryann’s interest in Ted was economic, not love.