COA: Granddaughter fails to show she did not unduly influence sick grandfather

A granddaughter who acquired her grandfather’s home free of charge through a quit claim deed executed about a week before the elderly relative died of brain cancer has lost the house after the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed she procured the property through undue influence.

Larry Blair owned a home in Fort Wayne which had a market value of $131,300. When his health declined because of a large brain tumor, his granddaughter, Samantha Pulliam, because his full-time caretaker. About a week before Blair died, he executed a quit claim deed which transferred the title of his home to Pulliam for $0.00.

After Blair died, Hesson was appointed as the personal representative of the estate and his stepchildren filed a petition, asking the trial court to determine the transfer of the home to Pulliam was invalid. The Allen Superior Court concluded Pulliam had undue influence on Blair and that he lacked the requisite mental capacity to transfer his home to Pulliam.

Pulliam subsequently appealed the trial court invalidating the transfer of Blair’s home to Pulliam and ordering the home be returned to Blair’s estate.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in In the Matter of the Supervised Estate of Larry J. Blair, Deceased, Samantha Pulliam v. Jeffrey Peconge and Michael Peconge, Laura Jean Hesson, personal Representative of the Estate of Larry J. Blair, 21A-ES-494.

In part, Pulliam argued the trial court erred in finding she exercised undue influence over Blair. She asserted that contrary to the lower court’s ruling, her relationship with Blair was not confidential as a matter of law so she should not have had the burden of proving that the transfer of the home to her was an arm’s length transaction.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. Because of Blair’s declining health, which made him unable to follow comments, make decision and understand conversations most of the time, the appellate panel noted Pulliam was the dominant party in the relationship which made the relationship between the grandfather and granddaughter confidential as a matter of law.

Consequently, Pulliam had the burden of rebutting the presumption of undue influence.

The Court of Appeals determined Pulliam failed to demonstrate she acted in good faith. Her actions included eavesdropping on conversations between Blair and his attorney, trying to transfer ownership of the house to her through use of a power of attorney, and trying to get Blair to sign a purchase agreement that was not completely filled out.

“Samantha also failed to demonstrate that she acted in good faith during her participation the September 5, 2019, signing of the quit claim deed,” Judge James Kirsch wrote for the court. “Before Larry signed the deed, no one read aloud any terms of the deed to Larry. During the signing of the deed, Samantha and Larry discussed the effect of executing the deed.

“…Given all the fact before it, the trial court could have found Samantha did not exhibit good faith when she said, ‘All you’re doing right here is adding my name to your title’ and “It’s still yours,’ even if those words were not completely inaccurate. We too find Samantha failed to show by clear and convincing evidence she acted in good faith.”

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