No. 235 March Term, 1977, Appeal from the Decree Entered on September 30, 1977 of the Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Westmoreland County at No. 65-75-2047.
Thomas J. Godlewski, Greensburg, for appellants.
Gene E. McDonald, Bernard F. Scherer, Lightcap, McDonald & Moore, Latrobe, for appellee.
Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix, Manderino and Larsen, JJ. Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ., concur in the result.
On May 18, 1971, Harry McClain entered into a "Unitrust Agreement" which named himself as income beneficiary for life, remainder to St. Vincent College of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania (one of the appellees herein) upon termination of the trust at the death of McClain, the donor. The agreement also named St. Vincent College as trustee. On March 29, 1972, Harry McClain made certain additions to the corpus of the trust created by the Unitrust Agreement.
On March 30, 1971, Harry McClain executed a power of attorney to George E. Sweeney, another of the appellees. Acting under the authority of this power of attorney, Sweeney transferred certain of McClain's assets to several charitable institutions. On April 3, 1972, McClain executed a general warranty deed granting and conveying certain property to George Sweeney and his wife, Clara B. Sweeney (also an appellee).
On March 30, 1971, McClain executed his last will and testament, which instrument named George E. Sweeney as executor and as legatee of his (McClain's) entire estate.*fn1
McClain died on December 20, 1975, and Sweeney applied to the Court of Common Peas of Westmoreland County, Orphan's Court Division, for probate of the will, to which application appellants, who claim to be grandnieces of the decedent, filed a caveat opposing the probate of the will on grounds of lack of mental capacity, undue influence and breach of a confidential relationship by George Sweeney, and other issues. The caveat asserted that appellants are the sole heirs-at-law of decedent and that they, therefore, are entitled to his estate due to the alleged invalidity of the will. Appellants also filed a separate petition challenging the validity of the various inter vivos conveyances of the decedent (the Unitrust Agreement and addition thereto, the power of attorney and transfers pursuant thereto, and the deed), asserting the same grounds of invalidity as asserted in the caveat to the will. They claimed that all of the property conveyed by the allegedly invalid instruments should be returned to the estate.
Answers were filed to the caveat and petition by the executor of the estate (Sweeney) and St. Vincent College, as beneficiary of the trust, denying, inter alia, that the caveators-petitioners (appellants) were related to decedent in the proper degree of consanguinity to contest the conveyances and the will, i. e. that appellants had no standing to challenge the validity of the various instruments. A hearing was held for the sole purpose of determining if appellants stood within the necessary degree of relationship to challenge the instruments.
After two days of hearings, the lower court, Judge Earl S. Keim presiding, ruled that appellants did not present sufficient evidence to support appellant's claim of relationship to the decedent, dismissed the caveat and petition and ordered the will of decedent accepted for probate. Exceptions were filed by appellants and dismissed ...