In re Staico, 143 A.3d 983 (Pa. Super. 2016)

The testator, Albert Staico, Jr., had moved in with his longtime girlfriend Emma in 2008.  In May 2011, Mr. Staico asked Emma to contact an attorney to draft a will for him.  At the time of Mr. Staico’s appointment with an attorney to do so, he was in the hospital; Emma attended the appointment alone and informed the attorney that Mr. Staico wished to leave his entire estate to her.

The attorney drafted a Will for Mr. Staico with those terms and took it to Mr. Staico in the hospital on June 7, 2011.  The attorney spoke with Mr. Staico and satisified himself that Mr. Staico was aware of the nature of the Will, and Mr. Staico stated his wish that Emma receive his entire estate.  Emma was present, but did not participate in the conversation.

When it came time for Mr. Staico to sign the Will, he could hold the pen but could not push down hard enough to make a mark on the paper.  He asked Emma to help, and she “guided his hand.” 

Mr. Staico passed away five days later.  He was survived by his mother and his sister. 

Emma admitted the June 7, 2011 Will to probate.  However, nearly a year later, Mr. Staico’s mother challenged the decision of the Register of Wills to admit that Will to probate.

Mr. Staico’s mother argued that (1) the Will was not properly signed, (2) Mr. Staico had lacked testamentary capacity at the time of the signing, and (3) Emma exercised undue influence over him.

The Superior Court found that the first argument lacked merit.  It quoted prior case law that “[i]f one having testamentary capacity, is unable from palsy or other cause to steady his hand so as to make to his will the signature required by law, another person may hold his hand and aid him in so doing….”  The testimony of the attorney and Emma – that Emma had guided Mr. Staico’s hand – was found credible by the trial court.  The Superior Court agreed that the Will had been properly executed.

As to Mr. Staico’s testamentary capacity, Pennsylvania law is that “[t]estamentary capacity exists when  the testator has intelligent knowledge of [1] the natural objects of his bounty, [2] the general composition of his estate, and [3] what he or she wants done with it, even if his memory is impaired by age or disease.” 

First, the Superior Court found that Emma was a natural object of Mr. Staico’s bounty, given that he had lived with her for three years, that she was the beneficiary on accounts held by Mr. Staico, and that she visted Mr. Staico in the hospital “all day every day.” 

On the second and third factors, the Court credited the attorney’s testimony that he was satisfied that Mr. Staico understood what a Will was and that he did want to leave his entire estate to Emma.

Finally, on the issue of undue influence, the court found that there was no admissible evidence presented of Mr. Staico’s confusion, forgetfulness, or disorientation.  Further, the Court found that Emma and Mr. Staico’s relationship was akin to that of spouses, which is not necessarily indicative of a confidential relationship under which undue influence can be found.  It held that Mr. Staico’s mother had provided no admissible evidence of Emma’s exercising an undue influence over Mr. Staico.

As a result, Mr. Staico’s mother’s challenge to the probate of his Will was dismissed, and the Will was valid.


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