Can a comic valentine lead to a will contest? You bet.
The year was 1896. Deep in the heart of Texas, a certain elderly woman received an unsigned comic valentine. According to the appellate court opinion (which we will liberally quote because of its picturesque language) the card was intended as a “burlesque” upon the woman and was “calculated to incite in her a high degree of mortification and shame.”
What kind of card could do that? One that contained “the picture of an old woman with a washboard, and dressed in an ugly, comical manner.”
Now the elderly woman had 6 children. Several people reportedly told the woman, through “hints, insinuations, innuendoes and by direct charge,” that one of her daughters was responsible for sending the valentine to her.
When the daughter heard this, she went to her mother “for whom she had great fondness and affection” and denied everything.
Five years passed, and then the elderly woman made out her will. After she “departed this life” on March 23, 1902, it was discovered that she had left a large estate of $50,000. Her will bequeathed most of it to 5 of her 6 children but left the remaining child only a nominal amount.
Who was the child so slighted? Why, the very daughter who had been accused of sending her the comic valentine.
The daughter sued to have the will set aside, complaining that her mother had been unduly influenced by the false valentine rumor.
Ah, but undue influence is difficult to prove. As the court explained, the will could only be set aside if the mother’s free agency was destroyed by the influence brought to bear upon her. The court explained that “persuasion, entreaty, cajolery, importunity, argument, intercession and solicitation are permissible…”
The court then examined the relationship between daughter and mother. It found the mother had indeed formed a prejudice against her daughter over the valentine incident, but that the mother’s belief had been later confirmed by the “unfilial conduct” of her daughter. It described the mother as a woman of “strong energy and intelligence, high temper, and violent prejudices.”
After noting that the daughter had not spoken to her mother since the valentine conversation, the appellate judges opined “the dictates of filial love and respect, it would seem, should have prompted the daughter to have laid aside all feelings of anger, resentment, or pride, and to have sought reconciliation with her aged mother, who…. was sick and decrepit for years before her death. But the daughter did not respond to any such peaceful and praiseworthy sentiments.”
The court said of the mother’s property: “Her children had no legal right to any portion of it, and she could have bequeathed it to anyone that she desired. There may have been some moral obligation resting upon her to give her fortune to her children, but such obligation could be set aside by her, or it may have been destroyed by the undutiful and unfilial conduct of the children.”
And that should strike fear into the heart of every adult child expecting an inheritance. If you hurry, you can still send out a nice Valentine’s day card.
Virginia Hammerle is an attorney with Hammerle Finley Law Firm whose practice includes probate law, estate planning and contested litigation. To receive her newsletter contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit our estate planning and probate attorneys in Lewisville, TX from surrounding areas.