ESTATE OF: STELLA FABIAN, DECEASED APPEAL OF: LOUISE BENSON, SUSANNE SULLIVAN, GREGORY FABIAN, MICHELLE KRATZER AND JENNIFER SLADE
from the Decree Entered June 28, 2018 In the Court of Common
Pleas of Carbon County Orphans' Court at No(s): 16-9051
BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., KUNSELMAN, J., and COLINS, J.
Benson, Susanne Sullivan, Gregory Fabian, Michelle Kratzer
and Jennifer Slade (collectively, "Contestants")
appeal from the decree, entered in the Orphans' Court
Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Carbon County,
denying their appeal from probate of the Last Will and
Testament of Stella Fabian, Deceased ("Testatrix").
Upon careful review, we vacate and remand with instructions.
29, 1988, in which Testatrix left her entire estate to
Barbara and, in the event Barbara predeceased her, to the
following individuals: Robert Treskot, 10%; Carolyn Treskot
Kutta, 5%; Marie Krepics [sic], 10%; Susan [sic] Fabian (now
Sullivan) (great-niece), 10%; Michelle Fabian (now Kratzer)
(great-niece), 5%; Jennifer Fabian (now Slade) (great-niece),
10%; Louise Fabian (now Benson) (niece-in-law), 10%; Gregory
Fabian (nephew), 5%; the children of Katherine Kralik, 25%;
Mary Redline (niece), 5%; and Sacred Heart Church, 5%.
See Will of Stella Fabian, 12/29/88, at Item Third.
2014 will was admitted to probate on February 16, 2016, and
letters testamentary were granted to Marie and Charles. On
May 27, 2017, Contestants filed a "Petition for Citation
to Show Cause Why Appeal from Probate Should Not Be Granted
and Certain Writing Offered as Will Vacated." In their
petition, Contestants alleged that: Testatrix's 2014 will
was the product of undue influence exercised upon Testatrix
by Marie and Charles; Testatrix lacked capacity to execute a
valid will; the will was the product of fraud exercised upon
Testatrix by Marie; and the will was the product of a mistake
on the part of Testatrix and did not represent her true
testamentary intent. See Petition for Citation,
filed a response to the petition on July 7, 2016. Hearings
were held on January 18, 2107, April 20, 2017, and July 21,
2017. By decision and decree issued on June 28, 2017, the
court denied Contestants' appeal from probate. This
timely appeal follows, in which Contestants raise the
following issues for our review:
1. Did the Orphans' Court err by ruling that Georgia
Young, RN, was not qualified to offer an expert opinion on
mental capacity despite her special training and ten years of
experience making such assessments?
2. Did the Orphans' Court err as a matter of law by
concluding that Testatrix did not suffer from a weakened
intellect where: (a) the court found that she could not
conduct her own affairs; (b) there was evidence that
Testatrix was cognitively impaired with moderate
Alzheimer's disease and could not make her own decisions;
(c) the Proponents provided the scrivener with the proposed
terms of the will; and (d) the court's findings of fact
mischaracterized the testimony of key witnesses?
3. Did the Orphans' Court err by not finding that
Proponents had failed to rebut the presumption of undue
influence, where Proponents presented no expert witnesses and
testified that they were heavily involved in procuring the
will and that Testatrix was easily influenced?
See Brief of Appellants, at 5-6.
first assert that the Orphans' Court erred in refusing to
qualify Nurse Young as an expert on mental capacity. Our
standard of review of a trial court's decision to exclude
expert testimony is very narrow.
The admission or exclusion of evidence, including the
admission of testimony from an expert witness, is within the
sound discretion of the trial court. . . . [W]e may only
reverse upon a showing that the trial court clearly abused
its discretion or committed an error of law. To constitute
reversible error, an evidentiary ruling must not only be
erroneous, but also harmful or prejudicial to the complaining
McClain ex rel. Thomas v. Welker, 761 A.2d 155, 156
(Pa. Super. 2000), quoting Turney Media Fuel, Inc. v.
Toll Bros., Inc., 725 A.2d 836, 839 (Pa. Super. 1999).
The standard for qualification of an expert witness is a
liberal one. "The test to be applied when qualifying an
expert witness is whether the witness has any
reasonable pretension to specialized knowledge on the subject
under investigation." Miller v. Brass Rail Tavern,
Inc., 664 A.2d 525, 528 (Pa. 1995) (emphasis in
original). It is not a necessary prerequisite that the expert
be possessed of all of the knowledge in a given field, only
that he possess more knowledge than is otherwise within the
ordinary range of training, knowledge, intelligence or
the Contestants offered Nurse Young as an expert with respect
to mental capacity and the cognitive abilities of patients
suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Nurse
Young testified that she was a registered nurse employed as
the director of nursing at Maple Shade Meadows, the personal
care home where Testatrix resided. She had held that position
for approximately four years. Nurse Young stated that her job
was to oversee the care of all residents, screen potential
residents, perform monthly assessments on all residents, and
perform admissions and discharges. She testified that her
assessments encompassed cognitive and mental function, but
that she had no special certifications related to patients
with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. However, Nurse
Young testified ...