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Appeals panel reinstates claims of capacity, undue influence in trust dispute

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A family feud involving half-siblings contesting the trust bequeathed by their mother was improperly disposed of through summary judgment, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The panel reversed and remanded the case, In the Matter of the Trust of Dorothy Rhoades; Robert Kutchinski and Shelia Graves, f/k/a Shelia Kutchinski v. Joseph Strazzante and Monty Strazzante, Co-Trustees, 45A03-1206-TR-296. The panel held there were issues of material fact regarding Rhoades’ capacity and whether she had been unduly influenced.

Dorothy Rhoades had been in declining health, and 11 days before she died, she amended her power of attorney and made other changes affecting her will and trust. At the direction of son Joseph Strazzante, she named him sole attorney-in-fact and excluded as a beneficiary another son, Robert Kutchinski, who had been co-attorney-in-fact. She also excluded daughter Sheila Graves.  

Joseph and Monty Strazzante won summary judgment from Lake Superior Judge Geroge Paras, who ruled that there were no issues of material fact as to the mother’s capacity or undue influence. The appellate panel disagreed, noting she was heavily medicated and relied on a caretaker when she signed off on the changes. The caretaker testified her medication “resulted in her inability to fully comprehend what was fully happening to her.”

“We conclude that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Dorothy was of sound mind at the time she executed the amendments at issue,” Judge Rudy Pyle III wrote for the panel. “Accordingly, we conclude that the issue of testamentary capacity is a question of fact for a jury to determine and that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment on this issue.”

That determination undercut the defense argument that there was no issue of undue influence. “Because we have determined that there is an issue of material fact regarding testamentary capacity, we conclude that summary judgment was also not appropriate on the issue of undue influence,” Pyle wrote.




 

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