MCFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.
McFadden, Presiding Judge.
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.
Ruling upholding 2010 will.
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).
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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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, ...