Superman Returns was a pretty good movie (though hopefully the Man of Steel reboot will be an improvement). The legal issues the movie raises are quite a bit different from our usual crime & torts fare, which is a nice change of pace. Spoilers inside:
Right off the bat the movie establishes that Lex Luthor is an eeeevil man by showing him convincing a dying rich old lady to give her entire estate to him. The problem is that this scam has been around for millennia, and the law has developed several tools to prevent it.
I. Undue Influence
One tool to reach for is ‘undue influence.’ This is a common law doctrine, so the precise elements vary from state to state, but the Metropolis of Superman Returns is very similar to New York, so we’ll use New York law. In New York, the standard for undue influence dates back to an 1877 case, Children’s Aid Soc’y of N.Y. v. Loveridge, 70 N.Y. 387, which held:
“In order to avoid a will, upon the ground of undue influence, it must be shown that the influence exercised amounted to moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency; or that, by importunity, which he was unable to resist, the testator was constrained to do that which was against his free will and desire.”
That standard is still in use today. See, e.g., In re Eastman, 880 N.Y.S.2d 157 (N.Y. App. Div. 2009). Unfortunately, the standard itself isn’t very helpful in determining whether a undue influence is present in a given case or not. Luckily there are lots of cases we can use by way of analogy. For example, In re Neary, 843 N.Y.S.2d 689 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007), in which the court held that:
“the proponent was in a confidential relationship with the decedent, and engaged in a course of conduct designed to sway the decedent into leaving the bulk of his estate to her. In light of all of the circumstances of this case, including the decedent’s weakened physical condition at the time the will was executed, there was sufficient evidence to establish that the will was the result of a subtle, but pervasive, form of coercion and influence, by which the proponent overwhelmed and manipulated decedent’s volition to advance her own interests.”
The facts in the Luthor case raise similar alarms: a confidential relationship (Luthor was keeping the woman separate from her family, members of which were demanding to be let in to see her as she lay dying) and a weakened decedent. Other common alarms in this case include the estate suddenly being shifted to the alleged influencer and the fact that the influencer was the only person present for the execution of the new will. While not conclusive evidence of undue influence, these facts “call for and impose upon the proponents of the will the burden of explanation.” Children’s Aid Soc. of N.Y., 70 N.Y. at 388. The woman’s family would have a good case for undue influence.
II. Testamentary Capacity
It’s not clear exactly what mental state the dying woman was in when she signed the will, but she comes across as a little loopy. An argument could be made that she was incompetent, but that’s a tougher argument to make than undue influence in this case. The standard for testamentary capacity is pretty consistent across the US, and the New York standard is typical: the testator must have “understood the nature and consequences of making a will, the nature and extent of his property, and the natural objects of his bounty.” In re Malan, 866 N.Y.S.2d 774 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008).
It’s pretty clear that she understood that she was executing a will, and there’s no reason to think she wasn’t aware of the extent of her wealth. The only real question is whether she fully understood that she was depriving her family (the ‘natural objects of her bounty’) of her estate. Unfortunately we don’t really have enough to go on here, but it’s definitely an issue that would come up.
III. Will Formalities
And here we come to a clincher. In most jurisdictions, a will must be signed by multiple witnesses (there are exceptions in some states for holographic wills, that is, wills written out by the testator). New York requires two witnesses. N.Y. Estates Law § 3-2.1(a)(4). But in this case there was at most one, Luthor himself. This pretty well spells the end for Luthor’s plan.
Furthermore, as in many states, a witness who is also a beneficiary under the will is incompetent to testify regarding the will unless there were at least two disinterested witnesses (i.e. witnesses who weren’t getting anything). N.Y. Estates Law § 3-3.2(a). In this case, there were no other witnesses, so Luthor would be unable to prove the will in court.
If there’s no way to prove a disposition to an interested witness, that witness gets at most whatever they would get if the testator had died without a will (i.e. what they would get ‘by default’). There is some indication in the movie that Luthor was married to the woman (after she dies he takes off a ring), which means he would still get a surviving spouse’s share. In New York that is equal to the greater of $50,000 or one-third of the net estate. N.Y. Estates Law § 5-1.1-A. So he wouldn’t walk away empty-handed, at least not on the basis of being an interested witness. The other issues with the will and its execution would take care of the rest, though.
Although we picked New York law for convenience, we don’t think there’s a jurisdiction in the country that would have let Luthor get away with his scheme. It’s just as well he put his larger evil plan into motion quickly, since the family would almost certainly win a will contest.
We didn’t have space for it today, but if people are interested we can also discuss Superman/Clark Kent’s possible liability for child support for his son Jason.