Did Favored Niece Exercise Undue Influence?
Paul Salitsky alleged in his complaint that, in December 2019, Karen D’Attanasio used undue influence or fraud to induce his elderly aunt to execute a form changing the designated beneficiary of a $6 million account from Salitsky to D’Attansio or that she forged his aunt’s signature on the form. The aunt passed away in January 2021. D’Attanasio moved to dismiss several of the claims asserted in the complaint. Supreme Court granted the motion. Salitsky appealed.
At the pre-discovery stage,and given that key information was within D’Attansio’s sole knowledge, the Court found that Salitsky sufficiently pleaded the elements of an undue influence claim–which were motive, opportunity, and the actual exercise of undue influence. Circumstances that may be considered in determining the existence of undue influence included whether the result of the decedent’s changed directive concerning the disposition of property following her death was unnatural or the result of an unexplained departure from a previously expressed intention. Other factors included who prepared the document and the decedent’s mental and physical condition at the time.
Here, the circumstances requiring scrutiny included the alleged facts that Salitsky was decedent’s closest living relative; they had a continuing close relationship; and he had been the designated beneficiary for 10 years. And that D’Attanasio was a neighbor and relatively recent friend. Salitsky sufficiently alleged D’Attanasio’s financial motive (the $6 million-plus value of the account); opportunity (that his aunt and D’Attanasio were neighbors); his aunt’s advanced age, fragile physical health, and inability to print the change of beneficiary form independently; and actual exercise of undue influence (the execution and mailing of the change of beneficiary form and the suspicious circumstances surrounding the writing of a $15,000 check to D’Attanasio weeks later). Accepting the pleadings as true, the allegations that the aunt attempted to stop payment on the $15,000 check and complained to others that D’Attanasio had tricked her into writing the check and changed her will to remove D’Attanasio as her executor, but did not change or revoke the beneficiary form, together supported an inference that the aunt either was not aware of the form or was not aware of its effect.
The Court also found that the unjust enrichment and conversion causes of action were sufficiently pleaded. The basis of a claim for unjust enrichment is that the defendant had obtained a benefit which in equity and good conscience should be paid to the plaintiff. Salitsky, who alleged a situation where his elderly aunt, due to D’Attanasio’s alleged undue influence, turned over the entirety of a $6 million-plus account to her neighbor and entirely excluded him, her closest living relative who, moreover, enjoyed a close relationship with her, adequately stated a basis for that claim.
Salitsky also sufficiently alleged the elements of a conversion claim, in that he was the rightful account beneficiary, having originally been so designated by his aunt, and that, through undue influence, D’Attanasio interfered with such rights, replacing him as the sole account beneficiary.
Under the circumstances, Salitsky set forth a proper case for a declaration that the 2019 account beneficiary form (designating D’Attanasio as sole beneficiary) was invalid and that the 2010 form (designating him as sole beneficiary) controlled. The merit of the claim at the pleading stage was not a relevant factor and the action was allowed to proceed. But the injunction and fraud claims were properly dismissed with prejudice. As to the injunction claim, Salitsky did not question that he had an available remedy at law that would furnish plain and adequate relief. As for the first fraud claim, which centered around the allegation of D’Attanasio’s deceit upon the aunt, the alleged deceit was not explained or pleaded with the requisite specificity. The second fraud claim, which seemed to arise from alleged misrepresentations in a renunciation and disclaimer executed by D’Attanasio, was properly dismissed, as it did not adequately allege reliance by Salitsky or others on misrepresentations in that document or resulting damages. And because the injunction and fraud claims suffered from more fundamental deficiencies than mere pleading defects, they were properly dismissed with prejudice.