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Frivolous Objection to Will Triggers Attorney’s Fees

On March 4, 2022, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided In re Estate of Elinor J. Ferrell (A21A1361). There, Alvin Ferrell filed a Petition to Probate his mother’s Will. His siblings filed a caveat (an objection) contesting the Will.

The Caveators contested probate of the will asserting that (1) the Decedent was “not of the health to understand the contents of the Will at the time of her allegedly signing it[,]” (2) the Decedent did not know the will’s contents, (3) the Appellant used “malicious influences” on the Decedent to have her sign the will, (4) the Appellant “caused the ‘rush to death’ of the Decedent causing her immediate death[,]” and (5) the Appellant failed to provide for the Decadent’s health needs during the 30 days prior to her death “caused by him.”

The Probate Court held a hearing on the caveat, during which the caveators failed to offer evidence supporting their challenge. No transcript was provided on appeal, but the Probate Court’s order included detailed findings. None of the testimony offered even remotely suggested coersion or that the decedent did not know the object of her bounty, or was unable to come up with a distribution scheme for her property. There was no evidence of undue influence. Both sides testified the decedent was strong-willed. Caveators’ own witness also testified that she did not believe that the Appellant exerted any influence over the Decedent or coerced her in any way. There was no evidence to rebut testimony that the signature on the will was the decedent’s. The Court of Appeals found “a review of the record fails to uncover any evidence demonstrating factual merit in the Caveators’ claim.

The probate court dismissed the caveat and admitted the Will for Probate. Later, Alvin filed a Motion for Attorney’s fees which the Court denied. Alvin requested a discretionary review of the Court’s denial of his motion for attorney’s fees, which the Court of Appeals granted.

O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14 (a)provides:

[R]easonable and necessary attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation shall be awarded to any party against whom another party has asserted a claim, defense, or other position with respect to which there existed such a complete absence of any justiciable issue of law or fact that it could not be reasonably believed that a court would accept the asserted claim, defense, or other position.

Based on its review of the record, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision below and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on the amount of reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by the appellant. The Court of Appeals noted that caveators filed affidavits alleging improprieties concerning the decedent’s death (but not the execution of the Will), but they were filed after the hearing on the caveat.

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