Sorry for no posts as of late---I've been tied up preparing for, and then engaged in, a lengthy trust litigation case in which the jury, after a 6 day trial in Pulaski County Circuit Court, returned a significant verdict for our clients. I'm just now trying to catch up on other work, but hope to resume regularly updating this blog again soon.
One case that I read about since my last blog post demonstrates that although it is difficult to prove the invalidity of a deed, will, trust, etc. by proving that the person signed the will was not competent (whether due to mental illness, undue influence, duress, etc.), occasionally such claims are successful. For example, in Munzner v. Kushner, 2010 Ark. App. 196 (an appeal from Washington County Circuit Court), the Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling that a deed transferring property was invalid due to the incapacity of the grantor.
Specifically, a mere 36 hours before her death, Mrs. Kehoe executed a deed conveying her home to her brother, Mr. Munzner. Mrs. Kehoe apparently had to sign the deed with an "X" as she was too weak to finish the signature of her name when she lost her place. Her daughter, Ms. Kushner, sued asserting the invalidity of the deed.
At trial, Mrs. Kehoe's doctor testified that just prior to her death she had been administered morphine (utilized for severe pain and suffering), a medication that fights anxiety and sedation, a medication which causes confusion, and a powerful narcotic. The doctor testified that it would be ill-advised to make any life decision while taking any of the medicines and that they would have impaired her ability to make decisions related to her property.
On the other hand, friends and relatives who spoke to Mrs. Kehoe that day testified that she was competent. Moreover, Mrs. Kehoe's attorney, who spoke to her about the deed on that day, also stated that she was competent.
After considering all of the evidence, the trial court ruled that because Mr. Munzner was Mrs. Kehoe's brother and she had a close confidential relationship with him, he had the burden of proving that his sister was competent to make the deed. This was especially the case in light of the lack of any consideration (exchange of money or property) for the deed. The trial court then found that Mrs. Kehoe had been too mentally impaired to execute the deed and ordered it set aside.
Mr. Munzner appealed but the Court of Appeals affirmed. Specifically, the Court held that Mrs. Kehoe's mental impairment was debilitating to the point that she could not function appropriately to execute the deed regardless of whether she may have been exposed or susceptible to any undue influence.
Under Arkansas law, the determination of whether a deed is void because of the mental incapacity of the grantor is generally measured by her mental ability at the time of execution of the deed. Andres v. Andres, 1 Ark. App. 75, 83, 613 S.W.2d 404, 409 (1981). If the grantor is mentally competent at the time that the deed at issue is executed, the deed will be deemed valid. Id. In this case the Court held that Mrs. Kehoe's mental impairment was so debilitating that she was unable to function in a capacity to execute the deed, due to her medication and due to her medical condition. Because the trial court placed great weight upon the physician's opinion, and because a trial court generally has great discretion with respect to considering the credibility of the various witnesses who testify at trial, the Court of Appeals did not find that there was sufficient reason to reverse the trial court's ruling.
Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.