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In Re Estate of Ward Turpin; Rodman M.

May 19, 2011

IN RE ESTATE OF WARD TURPIN; RODMAN M. TURPIN, APPELLANT.


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM-524-08) (Hon. Rhonda Reid-Winston, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, Associate Judge:

Argued February 8, 2011

Before GLICKMAN and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

Appellant Rodman Turpin ("Rodman") challenges the trial court's ruling, after a bench trial, that although a will executed by Ward Turpin ("Turpin") in 2007 was the result of fraud and undue influence, (1) the portion of the will naming Ajolique Jude ("Ajolique") as a residuary legatee should be given effect, and (2) the entire residuary estate passes to Ajolique under the will. We sustain the trial court's ruling insofar as it holds that one-half of the residuary estate passes to Ajolique under the will. However, for the reasons discussed below, we conclude that the other half of the residuary estate must pass by intestacy. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

Appellant has not provided us with a trial transcript, and thus we do not have the full details of the evidence presented or the bench rulings made during the trial. However, in its May 17, 2010 written "Order," the trial court made detailed factual findings, which neither party has challenged. Accordingly, we rely on the Order for the following description of the relevant factual and procedural background.

In 1994, Turpin executed a will (the "1994 Will") that left the entirety of his estate to his niece Diane Jude ("Diane"), who, in 1992, moved into Turpin's home along with her husband Amani Jude ("Amani") and the couple's children, Ajolique and Aristide Jude ("Aristide").*fn1 Under the terms of the 1994 Will, in the event that Diane did not survive Turpin, equal shares of Turpin's estate were to be held in trust for the benefit of Ajolique and Aristide until after the thirty-fifth birthday of Ajolique, with Amani as trustee. As trustee, Amani was to have the power to "make full and final distribution" to Ajolique and Aristide before Ajolique reached the age of thirty-five "if in his discretion, it is for the best interest of the child or children."

Diane Jude died in 1995. On December 2, 2007, Turpin, who was eighty-two years old, was admitted to the hospital where, during his entire stay, he remained in a weakened and, at times, confused state. On December 4, 2007, Amani visited Turpin in the hospital and brought with him legal documents - including a new will - that he had downloaded from the internet. Accompanying Amani was Imani Ellis-Cheek, an attorney and friend of Amani. Amani placed the new will in front of Turpin and told him that it was an amendment, or codicil, to the 1994 Will, the purpose of which was to amend the distribution of Turpin's estate to disinherit Aristide, who had previously attempted to steal $5,000 from Turpin by forging a check. Turpin signed the new will (the "2007 Will") without reading it.*fn2 Ellis-Cheek, along with Turpin's hospital roommate, witnessed the Will in Turpin's presence.

The provisions of the 2007 Will "differ significantly" from those of the 1994 Will. The 2007 Will named Amani personal representative of Turpin's estate, gave the entire estate to Amani and Ajolique outright rather than in trust, and gave a contingent residuary beneficiary interest to Aristide. Specifically, section IV of the 2007 Will stated:

I give, devise and bequeath all of the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, of whatever kind and character, and wherever located, to the daughter of my niece, Diane Jude, that being Ajolique Jude, and to her father, Amani E. P. Guy Z. Jude. Also, I have elected to remove the first child of Diane, that being Aristide Jude, from any inheritance as aforementioned in the original will. In the event of either of these two predeceasing him, Aristide Jude, then the remainder shall be left to Rochelle Walton, In Trust, for Aristide. The Trust shall continue until his thirty sixth birthday, whereby the Trustee has the power to make full distribution before age 36, if in her discretion, it is for the best interest of Aristide.

Amani admitted that he did not discuss with Turpin the provision that made Aristide a contingent beneficiary. Nor was that portion of the will read to Turpin.

Two months after signing the 2007 Will, Turpin died, survived by his two sons, appellant Rodman and his brother Rodney Turpin. On May 21, 2008, Rodman filed a petition in the Superior Court Probate Division for appointment as personal representative of Turpin's estate. He asserted that no will existed and he listed only his brother and himself as interested persons entitled to notice of the proceedings. On May 29, 2008, the court appointed Rodman personal representative. On June 17, 2008, unaware of Rodman's appointment as personal representative, Amani likewise filed for appointment as personal representative of Turpin's estate. Amani presented two documents for probate - the 1994 Will and the 2007 Will. On June 27, 2008, the court appointed Amani personal representative. On November 10, 2008, Rodman filed a verified complaint to contest the validity of the two wills Amani had presented. The court entered an order vacating the appointment of both men as personal representative, appointed a substitute personal representative, consolidated the competing proceedings, and thereafter conducted a bench trial.

At trial, Rodman challenged the validity of both the 1994 Will and the 2007 Will, claiming, as to the 2007 Will, that Amani had used fraud and undue influence to procure Turpin's signature on the will. Amani denied that the 2007 Will was a product of fraud or undue influence and contended that the 2007 Will was intended to be a codicil to the 1994 Will. In its May 17, 2010 Order, the trial court ruled that although Turpin "believed that he had a valid will" and although the 1994 Will was "consistent with . . . Turpin's intentions," Amani had "failed to prove due execution" of the 1994 Will. Thus, the court deemed the 1994 Will to be invalid (a ruling that the parties do not dispute in this appeal). The court found that the 2007 Will "meets the requirements for being a stand alone will, rather than merely a codicil" to the 1994 Will and also found that Rodman had "failed to establish that [Turpin] was not competent to make a will." At the same time, the court found that Rodman "met his burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence" that the 2007 Will was procured by the "fraud and undue influence of Amani Jude." The court found that Amani, whom Turpin "did not like,"*fn3 "overbore Ward Turpin's true will, causing [Turpin] to sign a will that, in part, did not express his wishes." The court explained that "substantial evidence" showed that Amani had "overwhelm[ed] Turpin" with "numerous documents less than two days after Turpin was admitted" to the hospital; had convinced Turpin to make a will in December 2007 "by misrepresenting to him that Aristide . . . would no longer inherit from him under a new will;" and had knowingly made "false representations that Aristide Jude had been removed from the will," "when, in fact, Aristide was a contingent residuary beneficiary."

The court acknowledged that it was aware of no District of Columbia case addressing the issue of whether a will may be declared partially (rather than wholly) invalid where it is the product of undue influence,*fn4 but noted that Maryland "has long accepted and adhered to the doctrine of partial invalidity" as potentially applicable in such a circumstance. The court stated that it would apply the doctrine of partial invalidity to strike the portions of the 2007 Will that were procured by Amani's fraud and undue influence, finding that it could do so without "doing violence to [Turpin's] testamentary scheme." Accordingly, the court ordered stricken from the 2007 Will the language appointing Amani as personal representative and also removed the language designating Amani and Aristide as residuary legatee and contingent residuary legatee, respectively.*fn5 The court let stand the 2007 Will's residuary gift to Ajolique: "I give, devise and bequeath all of the rest, residue and remainder of my estate . . . to . . . Ajolique Jude." The court "question[ed]" and expressed "uncertainty about" whether "the omission from the 2007 will of a trust on the legacy to Ajolique Jude was a part of the undue influence exerted by Amani Jude," observing that "[t]here was no evidence at trial about how the trust came to be removed." However, finding that Ajolique "played no part in the undue influence exerted upon Ward Turpin by her father" and that there was "no doubt that one aspect of Turpin's testamentary scheme was for Ajolique . . . to be a beneficiary of his estate and a residuary beneficiary of the estate," the court ruled that all of the ...


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