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Woods v. Stonecipher

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

February 22, 2019

WOODS
v.
STONECIPHER.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         This appeal concerns a dispute over a will executed in 2010 by Charlotte Blalock. The will names Blalock's granddaughter, Amber Stonecipher, as executor. When Stonecipher petitioned to probate the will, Nancy Woods, who was Blalock's daughter and Stonecipher's aunt, filed a caveat challenging the will on the grounds that Blalock lacked testamentary capacity and was either under duress or unduly influenced when she signed it. Woods also sought to have the estate pay an outstanding debt secured by real property that she and Blalock jointly owned, with rights of survivorship, at the time of Blalock's death.

         On a de novo appeal from various probate court rulings, and following a bench trial, the superior court upheld the 2010 will and held that the estate had no obligation to pay the outstanding debt secured by the real property. Woods challenges both of these rulings on appeal. We affirm the ruling upholding the will because the evidence supported the superior court's findings that Blalock was competent to make it and that she was neither under duress nor unduly influenced at the time. But we reverse the ruling regarding the outstanding debt because the language of the will clearly expresses the intention that the estate pay that debt.

         1. Ruling upholding 2010 will.

         The parties strongly contest the facts relevant to the superior court's decision to uphold the 2010 will, and at the bench trial they presented conflicting evidence on that issue. On appeal, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the decision. See Burchard v. Corrington, 287 Ga. 786 (700 S.E.2d 365) (2010).

         So viewed, the evidence presented to the superior court shows that Blalock executed the will in question on November 30, 2010. Her health was in decline at the time, and earlier in the year she had asked Stonecipher to move into her house to help her. Blalock had raised Stonecipher from the time Stonecipher was a young girl and the two had a mother-daughter relationship. Stonecipher became Blalock's primary caregiver; she helped Blalock maintain the house, took her to medical appointments, and performed other services for her.

         In late October or early November, 2010, Blalock told Stonecipher that she wanted to update her will. Stonecipher hired an attorney, who reviewed Blalock's prior will and information from Blalock that he received through Stonecipher, met with Blalock in person twice at Blalock's home to discuss the will's terms, gave her a copy of a draft will to review, and made corrections to it at her direction. The final draft of the new will differed from Blalock's former will in three main ways: by naming Stonecipher executor; by giving the house in which Blalock then lived to Stonecipher; and by making Stonecipher the residual legatee.

         Blalock signed the new will on November 30, 2010 in the presence of the attorney, Stonecipher, and two neighbors who had known her for many years. She also signed a self-executing affidavit in which she averred, among other things, that the 2010 will was her "last will and testament[, ] that [she] had willingly made and executed it as a free act and deed for the purposes expressed therein[, and] that she was . . . of sound mind[.]" The two subscribing witnesses signed this affidavit as well. Blalock also executed, before the two witnesses, a power of attorney in favor of Stonecipher.

         The two subscribing witnesses signed a separate affidavit in which they testified, among other things, that Blalock had "declared the instrument to be her will" and "was, at the time the will was executed, over the age of eighteen, and, to the best of the knowledge of [the subscribing witnesses], of sound mind and not under any constraint or in any respect incompetent to make a will." When she executed the 2010 will, Blalock seemed coherent and aware, with a good understanding of what was happening. She had read the will. She indicated to one of the subscribing witnesses[1] that she knew she was signing a new will. She told him she had worked with the attorney to draft the new will and that it was what she wanted. She did not appear confused or under duress, and it did not appear that she had been influenced to sign the new will.

         In his order upholding the 2010 will, the superior court found that Blalock "was able to make competent decisions at the time of the execution of [the will], that there [was] insufficient evidence to show that [she] was unduly influenced in the making or execution of [the will], and that there [was] insufficient evidence to show that [she] was under duress at the time of the making and execution of [the will]." Woods argues on appeal that the evidence did not authorize the superior court to make these findings. But she must clear a high hurdle to prevail on this claim of error. On appeal, we will not disturb the factfinder's determination if it supported by any evidence. See Meadows v. Beam, 302 Ga. 494, 497 (2) (807 S.E.2d 339) (2017); Burchard, 287 Ga. at 788 (1). Moreover, "in reviewing this question [of the sufficiency of the evidence] in the context of a challenge to a will, a stringent standard must be met in order to set aside a will, as this deprives a person of the valuable right to make a will." Meadows, supra at 497-498 (2) (citation omitted).

         (a) Testamentary capacity.

         Woods's challenge to Blalock's competence is a challenge to her testamentary capacity. "Testamentary capacity exists when the testator has a decided and rational desire as to the disposition of property." OCGA § 53-4-11 (a). The requirement of testamentary capacity

is fulfilled with a showing that the testator understood that the will had the effect of disposing of her property at the time of her death, was capable of remembering generally what property was subject to disposition by will, was capable of remembering those persons related to her, ...

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