Melvin Simon, together with his brother and business associate Herbert Simon, built a business empire upon the then novel concept of the shopping mall. The company that he and his brother founded – Simon Property Group, Inc. – is now the largest mall owner on the United States with over 300 shopping malls in its property portfolio. Predictably, building a business empire of this magnitude made Melvin Simon a very wealthy man, and at the time of his death, his estate was valued at approximately $1 billion. It is what occurred just prior to and after Melvin’s death that draws attention to common fodder for Will contests for estates of all sizes.
Seven months prior to his death and suffering from cancer, Melvin Simon altered a Will that was then in effect, granting a greater portion of his estate to his wife, Bren Simon, diminishing the share of his estate that would be distributed to his adult children from a previous marriage. When Melvin Simon made these final changes to his Will, he was in the company of his wife, an attorney, and a long-time financial advisor. In Melvin’s weakened state, he required the aid of his financial advisor to guide his pen and sign his name on his revised testamentary document.
Not surprisingly, after Melvin’s death, a faction of his family consisting of his adult children viewed Melvin’s late change to his Will with suspicion, and through Deborah Simon, Melvin’s eldest daughter, sought to contest Melvin’s last Will in a legal contest. Citing the help given to Melvin by his financial advisor in signing his name, Deborah Simon claimed that her father lacked the capacity to make a Will and was the victim of duress, presumably perpetrated by her step-mother and Melvin’s financial advisor.
Will contests very often arise from situations, like the one involved in Melvin Simon’s estate, where a family becomes factionalized by events before a decedent’s passing. This factionalization, and the resulting desire to claim a greater share of an inheritance or deprive members of opposing family factions of their inheritance can often motivate scrutiny of a decedent’s Will and result in legal proceedings to contest a Will or series of Wills.
In Pennsylvania, those challenging a Will bear a significant burden in order to have a Will adjudicated invalid. First, the contestant must establish standing to contest the Will – meaning that the party seeking to invalidate the Will must show that his or her interest in the decedent’s Estate would be affected by probate of that Will in place of a prior Will or intestate distribution. Next, the contesting party must prove – by the standard of clear and convincing evidence – that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity when the challenged Will was made, that the decedent was the victim of undue influence, or both. Note that adequate testamentary capacity may be found even if the decedent suffered from a debilitating disease or would not have the capacity to enter a contract at law – the decedent need only have had an intelligent knowledge of the property he possessed and intelligent knowledge of how he desired to dispose of his property upon death. Undue influence is in the nature of fraud, and a contestant must show that the decedent’s Will was the product of coercive behavior and a level of control by another person that destroyed the decedent’s free agency.
Proving lack of testamentary capacity or undue influence by clear and convincing evidence is a very difficult task. Had the Melvin Simon Will contest been subject to Pennsylvania Law, the act of guiding the decedent’s hand at the Will signing – without more – would not constitute sufficient evidence to invalidate Melvin’s Will.