Felts v. Thaxton

Docket NumberA23A0662
Decision Date01 November 2023
PartiesFELTS et al. v. THAXTON.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

DOYLE P. J., GOBEIL, J., and SENIOR JUDGE FULLER

DOYLE PRESIDING JUDGE

Alice Felts filed the instant lawsuit against Pamela Thaxton in order to set aside David Silvian's designation of Thaxton as the beneficiary of an annuity, claiming that Thaxton used undue influence to become the beneficiary. During trial Thaxton moved for a directed verdict, which the trial court granted, finding that Felts had failed to present sufficient evidence of undue influence. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

We review de novo the grant of a motion for a directed verdict construing the evidence in favor of Felts as the nonmovant.[1] Viewing the record in this light, Felts and Silvian met in 1996, and in 1999, Silvian made Felts his durable power of attorney. The two were married in 2000, and he named her his executor, beneficiary, and healthcare power of attorney. The two eventually divorced in 2005, and Felts moved out of state, but the two remained close. Despite their divorce, in 2006, Silvian prepared a new will naming Felts as his primary beneficiary and executor and naming Felts's granddaughter as his secondary beneficiary, and he again named Felts as his healthcare power of attorney, outlining his wishes for end-of-life care and burial should he predecease her. Between 2006 and approximately a month prior to Silvian's death in April 2018, the two spoke on the phone usually at least once a day.

Around 2014, Silvian had a heart valve replacement and thereafter suffered depression and anxiety. Silvian often relied on Felts to intercede with doctors on his behalf. In 2016, Silvian sent an email to Felts relaying how unhappy and lonely he was at that time. That said, Silvian had several people who frequently helped him with errands, grocery shopping, and house cleaning, all of whom he spoke about to Felts, but she did not know of him leaving them any money in his will or giving them money at the time aside from reimbursements.

Silvian's health deteriorated, and in early 2017, Silvian, fell at his home, and neighbors assisted in getting him to a hospital. Felts spoke to adult protective services as well as a hospital social worker to attempt to get Silvian into an assisted living facility, but several would not take him. Felts spoke to Silvian several times a day while he was in the hospital after the fall, and she testified about troubling statements he made to her that indicated he was not recalling events correctly.

On February 26, 2017, Silvian moved into Arbor Terrace, an assisted living home.[2] That same day, Silvian met Thaxton for the first time at his home; at the request of Arbor Terrace's Executive Director, she assisted him with moving items from his home to Arbor Terrace.[3] Fewer than three weeks thereafter, the beneficiary designation on his large annuity fund[4] was changed from Felts to Thaxton, who was characterized on the document as his "caregiver and friend."[5] Thaxton testified that she assisted with moving Silvian's personal items, hung pictures for him, and fixed his phone, among other such tasks during those three weeks, for which services Silvian paid her $20 an hour; she also visited him with her dogs and played cards with him, although the time line of when these visits began is unclear. Thaxton also testified that she assisted Silvian in completing the change of beneficiary form, completing all parts of the document except for his signature.

In September 2017, about six months after Silvian allegedly changed his annuity beneficiary to Thaxton, Silvian took a picture of his apartment at Arbor Terrace showing his furniture and personal belongings and attached it to an email entitled "My estate," which he addressed to Felts, a number of other friends, and distant family, but not to Thaxton. Around that same time, Felts asked him about Thaxton, and Silvian told her that he and Thaxton were "on the outs" because he would not use her attorney for a matter; Silvian did not mention Thaxton again until 2018, close to his death.

Felts and Sam Silberman (another long-time friend of Silvian) testified that Silvian described Thaxton to them as his "bookkeeper" and that she assisted with some checking transactions, in one instance writing a $500 check to Silvian's accountant as well as, at Silvian's request, "holding" a $20,000 check and deposit slip for his brokerage. Silberman testified that he noticed a marked decline in Silvian's capacity between 2016-2018, and Silvian told him that he relied heavily on Thaxton for his finances after moving to Arbor Terrace, which was unlike Silvian, who Silberman characterized as being meticulous about managing his own finances. Moreover, there was testimony that shortly after moving to Arbor Terrace, Silvian entered into a rent-to-own lease of his home with an Arbor Terrace employee for a rental amount and ownership valuation that was substantially under market for the property.

After Silvian's death, Felts began working on his estate and discovered the change in the annuity beneficiary. She then filed the instant lawsuit, claiming that Thaxton had unduly influenced Silvian to name her as his beneficiary on the annuity. In the midst of trial, Thaxton moved for a direct verdict, which motion the trial court granted. In its order, the trial court concluded,

[t]here was no evidence presented by Felts to prove that Thaxton engaged in any type of inappropriate action in an attempt to unduly influence Silvian to change the primary beneficiary designation on the Nationwide annuity from Felts to Thaxton. There was no evidence presented that Felts and Silvian enjoyed a confidential relationship as contemplated by Georgia [l]aw. There was no evidence presented that on the evening of March 16, 2017, Silvian was incompetent or incapacitated when he executed the beneficiary designation change form. There is just simply no conflict in the evidence with respect to any material issue that would authorize a jury to find for Felts on this claim.
1. In several enumerations of error, Thaxton appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by granting a directed verdict.
A directed verdict is authorized only when there is no conflict in the evidence as to any material issue and the evidence introduced, with all reasonable deductions therefrom, shall demand a particular verdict. . . . A will[6] is invalid if anything destroys the testator's freedom of volition, such as undue influence whereby the will of another is substituted for the wishes of the testator. Undue influence may take many forms and may operate through diverse channels. There is no requirement that the undue influence be directly attributable to the propounder or to a single beneficiary. Although evidence which merely shows an opportunity to influence is not itself sufficient, a caveat based upon the ground of undue influence may be supported by a wide range of evidence, as such influence can seldom be shown except by circumstantial evidence. In particular, the question of whether a will is the product of undue influence is generally for the factfinder.[7]

Further, "a rebuttable presumption of undue influence arises when a beneficiary under a will occupies a confidential relationship with the testator, is not the natural object of his bounty, and takes an active part in the planning, preparation, or execution of the will."[8]

In this case, the evidence established a question for the jury on the issue of undue influence, including the initial question of whether Thaxton occupied a confidential relationship with Silvian, which would have created a rebuttable presumption of undue influence, as well as whether Silvian's mental capacity was in a diminished state such that any undue influence was easier to accomplish.

The Georgia Supreme Court's decision in Bean v. Wilson[9] is instructive here. In Bean, relatives of the decedent had hired a live-in nurse who cared for the decedent for over five years. Four months after the nurse moved into the decedent's home, the defendant relatives and nurse took the decedent to his attorney to change his will to reflect them as the beneficiaries of his will rather than the decedent's adult child.[10]The trial court found that the plaintiff had presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of undue influence in order to create a fact question for the jury, which ultimately found against the defendants, who appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court of Georgia.[11] The defendants argued that the evidence of undue influence was merely speculative and that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict on the claim.[12] The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, explaining that by virtue of the nurse assisting the decedent with daily living tasks and also being involved with the decedent's change of his will, the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence that the nurse had a confidential relationship with the decedent, explaining that such a rebuttable presumption exists when "a party is so situated as to exercise a controlling influence over the will, conduct, and interest of another."[13]

Here Thaxton testified that during the three weeks prior to Silvian's beneficiary change, she helped him get settled into the facility, including preparing his living space, writing checks for him, and completely preparing the beneficiary change form aside from his signature. The beneficiary change was completed without the involvement of an attorney, as was the case in Bean, making the possibility of Thaxton's control over Silvian's conduct more likely.[14] This was sufficient evidence to create a jury question as to whether Thaxton and Silvian had...

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