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In re Estate of Picillo

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

October 15, 2014

In re Estate of Ann Marie Picillo et al.

Kent County Superior Court (KP 07-1217) Daniel A. Procaccini Associate Justice.

For Contestant: Michael J. Picillo, Pro Se.

For Proponent: Jessica L. Basso, Esq.

Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Maureen McKenna Goldberg, Associate Justice

This case came before the Supreme Court on September 24, 2014, on appeal by Michael J. Picillo (contestant) from a Superior Court judgment, declaring that the heirs-at-law[1] of Ann Marie Picillo (the decedent or the testatrix) failed to prove that the testatrix lacked testamentary capacity to execute a will and failed to prove that the will was the product of undue influence. The contestant, who appeared before the Court pro se, asserts that the trial justice erred by: (1) failing to consider whether the will was executed in compliance with G.L. 1956 § 33-5-5; (2) concluding that the will was not the product of undue influence; (3) finding the decedent had the requisite testamentary capacity to execute the will; and (4) failing to make appropriate findings of fact required by Rule 52(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Because we are of the opinion that the trial justice committed no error, we affirm the judgment.

Facts and Travel

On November 11, 2004, the decedent executed her last will and testament. She died on November 21, 2004. The decedent never married and had no children; she was predeceased by four brothers, her only siblings. The heirs-at-law consisted of the decedent's nieces and nephews, including contestant, for whom, the record revealed, she had little or no regard. In accordance with her oft-spoken direction, the will bequeathed nothing to the heirs-at-law. Rather, the will named Maria Christina Castellanos Muriel (Muriel or proponent), her in-home caregiver, and Richard L. Walsh, III (Attorney Walsh), her long-time attorney, as co-executors; devised to Muriel her home and a rental property next door; and bequeathed certain bank accounts as well as the remainder of her estate to Diane Munroe (Munroe), her long-time friend and former neighbor.[2]

On December 6, 2004, a petition for probate of the decedent's will was filed in Warwick Probate Court. After a lengthy contest that challenged the validity of the instrument, the will was admitted to probate on October 4, 2007. The contestant, along with the remaining heirs-at-law, timely appealed to the Superior Court, alleging that at the time she executed the instrument, the testatrix lacked testamentary capacity and that the will was procured by the undue influence of Muriel and Munroe.

A Superior Court bench trial was held in November and December 2010. Attorney Walsh, the attorney who drafted the will and was named as co-executor, testified that he had represented the decedent in legal matters from 1986 until her death. Attorney Walsh averred that he began discussing the decedent's will with his client in 1993 and did so again in 2003. He noted that, by 2003, the testatrix was bedridden and that, in 2004, her leg was amputated.

Attorney Walsh testified that the testatrix indicated to him on more than one occasion that she did not want her nieces and nephews to receive anything from her estate. He testified that, on October 18, 2004, he met with the decedent to discuss her estate plans and that, on that occasion, she made several changes to the draft he had been preparing. During that meeting, the testatrix told him that, in addition to rheumatoid arthritis, she had been diagnosed with a respiratory disease and expected to live for only three or four months. This diagnosis, according to Attorney Walsh, was the reason she desired to finalize her will. Based on that discussion, Attorney Walsh prepared another draft of the will and delivered it to the decedent on October 27, 2004.

Attorney Walsh also testified about the decedent's relationship with Muriel. According to Attorney Walsh, Muriel had been in and out of the room during the October 18, 2004 meeting, and he observed what he characterized as an "employer[-]employee relationship" between the decedent and Muriel. Attorney Walsh also discussed conversations he had with the decedent concerning Muriel. The testatrix disclosed that, over the last year and a half of her life, she had grown to have great affection for Muriel, who had provided her with considerable care, such that she had come to consider Muriel and her two sons as her family.

Next, Attorney Walsh testified that, on November 10, 2004, the testatrix contacted him and requested that he come to her house the following day in order to finalize her will. Although he initially was unavailable on November 11, 2004, Attorney Walsh did see his client that evening. Attorney Walsh testified that he met with his client—in private—for twenty to thirty minutes; that he found her to be alert, awake, and speaking clearly; and that she did not appear to be under the influence of any medication. He then left to finalize the will and returned with three witnesses. The testatrix executed the will that night. Attorney Walsh testified that it was his belief that the testatrix had the requisite testamentary capacity to execute the will and that he did not consider her to be under duress or subject to the undue influence of anyone, including Muriel and Munroe.

Two of the three subscribing witnesses to the will also testified at trial, Steven Pagano (Pagano) and Attorney Walsh's mother, Nancy Walsh (Mrs. Walsh).[3] Both Pagano and Mrs. Walsh testified that the decedent's responses during the reading of the will were clear and that she did not appear to have problems understanding Attorney Walsh when he read the will to her. Both Pagano and Mrs. Walsh stated that they heard the decedent answer ...

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