Caraveo v. Perez (In re Estate of Bethurem)

Decision Date27 November 2013
Docket NumberNo. 57749.,57749.
Citation313 P.3d 237,129 Nev. Adv. Op. 92
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF Arlan Edward BETHUREM, Deceased. Ines Caraveo, Appellant, v. Anita Herrera Perez; Sandra Kurtz; and Vicki S. Preston, Respondents.
CourtNevada Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Hawkins Folsom & Muir and Gordon R. Muir, Reno, for Appellant.

Holland & Hart LLP and Richard L. Elmore, Tamara Reid, and J. Robert Smith, Reno, for Respondents Anita Herrera Perez and Sandra Kurtz.

John F. Kirsch, Reno, for Respondent Vicki S. Preston.

J. Douglas Clark, Reno, for Amicus Curiae State Bar of Nevada, Probate and Trust Law Section.

BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

OPINION

By the Court, PARRAGUIRRE, J.:

In this appeal, the beneficiary of a will challenges a district court order invalidating the will as the product of the beneficiary's undue influence. A rebuttable presumption of undue influence is raised if the testator and the beneficiary shared a fiduciary relationship, but undue influence may also be proved without raising this presumption. As a matter of first impression in Nevada, we hold that in the absence of a presumption, a will contestant bears the burden of proving undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence. Because we conclude that the respondent-will contestants failed to meet this burden of proof, we reverse the district court's order invalidating the will as the product of undue influence.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Arlan Bethurem died in December 2008. The special administrator of his estate petitioned to have the estate set aside without administration according to Arlan's 1 2007 will. Arlan's stepdaughters opposed the petition, arguing that a beneficiary of the 2007 will had unduly influenced Arlan. The testimony before the probate commissioner revealed the following facts.

Arlan married his wife Bertha in 1971, and the couple resided in Reno. Bertha had three children from a prior marriage, respondents Sandra Kurtz and Anita Herrera Perez, and a son who is not a party to this action. Bertha and Arlan raised the three children together. In 2004, Arlan executed a will bequeathing his estate to Bertha. In the event that Bertha did not survive him, Arlan's will divided his estate equally between his three stepchildren and a granddaughter.

In late 2005, Bertha became ill and Arlan sought assistance with her care. Bertha's sister, appellant Ines Caraveo, traveled to Reno from her home in Texas to help care for Bertha. Upon arrival in Reno, Ines asked Sandra and Anita to assist with Bertha's care, either physically or financially. Neither was able to do so. Ines became angry with Sandra and Anita for failing to care for Bertha. Sandra and Anita both testified that Bertha said in telephone conversations that she did not like how Ines was speaking to Arlan about their inability to provide care.

Bertha died in May 2006. Ines accompanied Arlan to make funeral arrangements with a priest. The priest testified that Arlan was grief-stricken but lucid at the time of this meeting, and that Arlan expressed disappointment that Sandra and Anita had not been more supportive during Bertha's illness. Sandra and Anita attended Bertha's funeral, where they felt ostracized by family members and other funeral attendants. After Bertha's funeral, Ines returned to Texas but stayed in contact with Arlan through daily telephone conversations. Arlan did not speak to Sandra for several months or to Anita for more than a year. Although Arlan was devastated by the loss of his wife, he continued to drive, go to work, and otherwise provide for his own daily needs.

In April 2007, Arlan contacted his friend and accountant Vicki Preston to prepare a new will. Preston testified that Arlan came to her office alone and appeared in good mental condition. Preston suggested that Arlan speak with an attorney, but he declined to do so and instead provided Preston with handwritten changes to a prior will. Preston testified that these changes were made in Arlan's handwriting. These changes named Ines and Arlan's sister as beneficiariesand expressly disinherited his stepchildren. Preston further testified that she did not speak to Ines about the will and prepared the will according to Arlan's written instructions. After Preston prepared the will, Arlan picked up Preston and Preston's friend in his truck, and they drove to a bank to execute the will before a notary. Preston and her friend served as witnesses to the will. Both witnesses testified that Arlan expressed disappointment that Sandra and Anita had not helped care for Bertha and that he said he wanted to change his will because of their treatment of Bertha while she was ill. Arlan also conveyed title of his home in Reno to himself and Ines as joint tenants with right of survivorship and added Ines to some of his bank accounts.

A month later, Sandra visited Arlan. She later testified that he was very depressed during her visit. After Sandra's departure, Arlan attempted suicide. Sandra then invited Arlan to stay with her in Oregon, and he did so for over two weeks. During his time in Oregon, Arlan called Ines from Sandra's home nearly every day. After spending approximately two weeks in Oregon, Arlan returned to Reno for work.

In October 2008, Arlan lost his job. He decided to sell his home and move to Oregon to be with Sandra. Ines did not want her name removed from the property's title but was willing to sign any documents related to the sale. Around the same time, Arlan expressed regret to Sandra about changing his will. Arlan told Sandra that he changed the will because he was angry with her. Sandra testified that Arlan had a history of changing his will when he was angry with family members. Arlan named Sandra and Ines as beneficiaries to a savings account of approximately $84,000.

About two months later, Arlan committed suicide. Arlan's home was in escrow at the time of his death, and after closing, Ines received the sale proceeds. Ines and Sandra received equal shares of the $84,000 savings account. Following Arlan's death, Preston was appointed special administrator and petitioned to set aside Arlan's estate without administration to Ines and Arlan's sister as provided in the 2007 will. Sandra and Anita opposed the petition, arguing that Ines had unduly influenced Arlan.

After hearing the testimony summarized above, the probate commissioner found that (1) Preston confirmed Ines made statements to Arlan about Sandra and Anita failing to care for Bertha, (2) Ines “enlisted” Preston to prepare the 2007 will, (3) “Ines mounted a campaign to turn Bertha and Arlan against Bertha's daughters ... by telling Arlan that the children were not doing enough to help their gravely ill mother,” and (4) “Ines took every opportunity to remind Arlan and Bertha that Bertha's children were unwilling to help.” The probate commissioner concluded that Ines had unduly influenced Arlan by fostering ill will between him and his stepdaughters and the 2007 will was the product of this undue influence. The probate commissioner recommended that the 2004 will be admitted to probate.

On review, the district court found that no evidence supported the probate commissioner's finding that Preston confirmed Ines made statements to Arlan about Sandra and Anita. The district court also concluded that the probate commissioner's finding that Ines enlisted Preston to prepare Arlan's 2007 will was clearly erroneous. However, the district court found these errors harmless. The district court affirmed the probate commissioner's recommendation, explaining that the evidence supported the commissioner's findings that Ines mounted a campaign to turn Arlan and Bertha against Sandra and Anita by telling Arlan that his stepdaughters were unwilling to help care for Bertha. Ines now appeals.

DISCUSSION

Below, we describe the current status of Nevada's undue influence law, discuss the appropriate burden and quantum of proof in a will contest on the grounds of undue influence, and address whether the evidence supports a finding of undue influence in this case.2Undue influence law in Nevada

In order to establish undue influence under Nevada law, “it must appear, either directly or by justifiable inference from the facts proved, that the influence ... destroy[ed] the free agency of the testator.” In re Estate of Hegarty, 46 Nev. 321, 326, 212 P. 1040, 1042 (1923). The influence that may arise from a family relationship is only unlawful if it overbears the will of the testator. Id. at 328, 212 P. at 1042. Moreover, the fact a beneficiary merely possesses or is motivated to exercise influence is insufficient to establish undue influence. Id. at 326, 212 P. at 1042. Finally, a will cannot be invalidated simply “because it does not conform to ideas of propriety.” Id. at 327, 212 P. at 1042.

We have held that [a] presumption of undue influence arises when a fiduciary relationship exists and the fiduciary benefits from the questioned transaction.” In re Jane Tiffany Living Trust 2001, 124 Nev. 74, 78, 177 P.3d 1060, 1062 (2008) (addressing undue influence in the context of an attorney receiving an inter vivos transfer from a client). Once raised, a beneficiary may rebut such a presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Id. at 79, 177 P.3d at 1063. Undue influence may also be shown in the absence of a presumption. See generally In re Estate of Hegarty, 46 Nev. at 327, 212 P. at 1042. However, we have not previously determined the appropriate burden and quantum of proof required to establish undue influence in the absence of a presumption. Because neither the probate commissioner nor the district court found that a presumption of undue influence was raised in this case, we now discuss the burden and quantum of proof necessary to establish undue influence in the absence of a presumption.

Burden and quantum of proof for establishing undue influence

It is well-recognized that the burden of proving undue influence in a will contest is on the party contesting the will's...

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