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Estate of Fabian

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 7, 2019


          Appeal 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. [*]


          LAZARUS, J.:

         Louise 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.

         December 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.

         The 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, 5/27/17.

         Proponents 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]

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.

         Contestants 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 party.

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 experience. Id.

         Here, 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 ...

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