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Meadows v. Beam

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 30, 2017

BEAM et al.


         This case involves a dispute among the children of Dorothy Rita Beam ("Decedent") concerning the distribution of her estate. Decedent's daughter, Dorothy Marian Meadows ("Marian"), filed a petition to probate Decedent's 2014 will and codicil, and Marian's siblings - John Beam, Jr., Margaret Beam, and Jayne Heggen (collectively, "Caveators") - filed a caveat alleging that Decedent lacked testamentary capacity to execute the will and codicil. After a trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Caveators, finding that Decedent lacked testamentary capacity and awarding attorney's fees to Caveators.[1] Marian appeals and argues, among other things, that the evidence does not support a finding that Decedent lacked testamentary capacity. We agree and we reverse.

         1. Trial evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Caveators

         On appeal, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. See Patterson-Fowlkes v. Chancey, 291 Ga. 601, 602 (732 S.E.2d 252) (2012). Although the focus is on a testator's capacity at the time a will is executed, evidence of a testator's condition before and after the execution of the will may be relevant for this purpose. Id.

         Viewed in this manner, the evidence shows that Decedent suffered from many medical problems, including arthritis, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and hypertension. In September 2013, Decedent, then 90 years old, was admitted into a hospital and exhibited confusion and forgetfulness during her hospitalization.

         Before her hospitalization, Decedent began to express certain beliefs that Caveators found strange. She said that she had been offered a job with the West Lumber Company, but she had stopped working there many years earlier. Decedent continued to make this assertion through 2014. In August 2013, Decedent also claimed she was offered a job at a Kroger grocery store where she and her husband played bingo, but her husband was dead and bingo was no longer played at the Kroger store.

         Following her September 2013 hospitalization and during her short stay at a rehabilitation facility in October 2013, Decedent asked Jayne to do some cleaning at Decedent's house and to donate some of Decedent's belongings to charity. Jayne explained that many items were already marked for donation and she identified additional items of clothing that could be donated. Before Jayne donated clothing that was not already marked, Jayne brought the clothing to Decedent for her approval. Jayne also reorganized her mother's house to make it safer upon Decedent's return from the rehabilitation center, explaining to Decedent where she moved things. Later, Decedent accused Jayne of stealing her clothes and also removing documents from her house without permission.

         Decedent also came to believe that her son John stole originals of her certificates of deposit and attempted to withdraw the money. In March 2014, as a result of her belief that John was stealing from her and mismanaging her funds, Decedent revoked John's power of attorney that she executed in 2004, asked him to return several estate documents, and questioned why the hospital asked for Decedent's 2004 will. John testified that he accessed a safe deposit box while Decedent was hospitalized because the hospital requested the executed power of attorney and her living will (which were in the same envelope as her will), and that he did not know where the original certificates were located and never touched them. John asked his mother about the certificates and why she believed he took them, but she could not answer any of his questions.

         In March 2014, Decedent told people that H&R Block offered her a job because she did a "good job" preparing her own taxes that year, but her taxes actually had been prepared by a third party. Decedent also believed she broke her ankle by tripping over an extension cord at her church, but her family testified that the incident did not happen and her family doctor had no record of it either. Around this time, Decedent told Jayne that a nurse had visited her house to draw blood in preparation for an upcoming gallbladder surgery and that an ambulance would pick her up for the surgery and bring her back home afterward, but her family doctor had no history of the surgery.

         Also in 2014, Decedent began complaining about her sister-in-law, called her names, and blamed her for causing Decedent's medical problems, but Decedent's sister-in-law had been dead for over 15 years. Decedent also asked Jayne to move back home to finish her college degree even though Jayne had obtained her degree about 40 years prior. Beginning in April 2014, Decedent sometimes would become confused in phone conversations with Margaret, asking who she was and confusing her for Jayne even though Margaret had previously identified herself.

         Decedent's sister, Norma Aballo, with whom she was very close, stated that when she visited Decedent in November 2013, Decedent was showing signs of confusion and memory failure. Sometime after March 2014, Decedent told Aballo that she was going to sell her house in Georgia and move to North Carolina with Marian because she had no family or friends in Georgia. Decedent also told her daughter Margaret that she had no family in Georgia. Aballo also testified that, around this time, Decedent was not acting rationally and began to accuse Caveators of stealing things from her and began to isolate Caveators, which surprised Aballo because Caveators had been the ones who had done everything for Decedent. Aballo said that Decedent had become a different person because of her behavior, memory loss, and confusion.

         In April 2014, Decedent executed a will naming Marian as executor and devising property to her children, except to John, with a majority of her estate going to Marian. In the 2014 will, as amended by a July 2014 codicil, Decedent provided that she would not directly give John any assets since "he is a successful business man, financially astute, [and] independently wealthy, " and instead bequeathed $10, 000 to a charity in his honor. Decedent had previously executed a will in 2004 in which she devised her property to her four children in equal shares. Shortly after signing the codicil in July 2014, Decedent died.

         Aballo stated that she was shocked to hear about the contents of Decedent's 2014 will.[2] Aballo testified that she believed that Decedent's "mind was going" because she thought Decedent always had intended to divide her property equally among her children on account of the "strife" Decedent and her siblings had experienced during the distribution of their mother's estate, something Decedent told Aballo she "never" wanted her children to experience.

         At trial, Caveators introduced the testimony of Dr. Matthew Norman, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist, to the effect that he reviewed Decedent's medical records, various depositions, affidavits from people that knew her, and other material in the case. Based on this review, Dr. Norman opined that Decedent had a "potentially" weakened state of mind, lacked testamentary capacity in that she was operating under a "fixed false belief" ...

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