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Snyder v. Poplett

OPINION FILED JULY 24, 1981.

MARGARET RAYBORN EISEN SNYDER ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,

v.

WILLIAM R. POPLETT ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of McLean County; the Hon. LUTHER H. DEARBORN, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE MILLS DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied August 21, 1981.

This will contest raises a question of "clergyman's privilege."

A jury determined that the will executed December 29, 1976, is the valid last will and testament of Ruth B. Reynolds, and plaintiffs now appeal, claiming evidentiary rulings by the trial court deprived them of a fair trial.

The complaint alleges that Ruth B. Reynolds lacked the mental capacity to make a will and that undue influence was exerted by James Yoder, the attorney who prepared the will in question. After certain life estates, the residue of decedent's estate is bequeathed: one-third to Northwestern University; one-third to Purdue University; and one-third to be divided evenly between Mennonite Hospital and Meadows-Mennonite Nursing Home. The complaint claims that attorney Yoder was acting as agent for Mennonite Hospital in preparing this will.

BACKGROUND

Decedent died March 17, 1977, at the age of 89. When this will was executed on December 29, 1976, she was staying at Mennonite Hospital extended care facility. Attorney James Yoder had served as her lawyer from about 1967 until her death. Mr. Yoder has also served as an attorney for Mennonite Hospital, and he testified that decedent was aware of this fact. Yoder is presently a member of the hospital's estate planning committee.

Leon Schmucher, the director of development for Mennonite Hospital, and James Yoder both belong to the Mennonite Church of Normal. Schmucher is responsible for seeking contributions, but denied that he ever asked decedent to give any money or property to the hospital.

Hal Rayborn — one of the plaintiffs — testified that decedent was his mother's half-sister. When he visited decedent at her farm on December 9, 1976, her speech was broken and she could not read without a magnifying glass.

Prior to trial, the court allowed a motion in limine filed by defendant executor, Peoples Bank of Bloomington, precluding testimony concerning the source of decedent's assets. Rayborn stated, in an offer of proof, that his grandfather, James Bailey, earned a lot of money. When Bailey died, the witness' mother did not receive anything. When his stepgrandmother died, she gave all the assets to her daughter, the decedent. This information was derived from Rayborn's conversations with his grandfather. Finding this testimony irrelevant and based on hearsay, the court denied the offer of proof.

Numerous witnesses testified to the extent that decedent was of sound mind and memory when she executed the subject will. Leon Schmucher talked with decedent about McLean County and Mennonite Hospital history. He testified she was very precise. Wanda Beasley described decedent as "sharp as a tack." Dr. Jerry Ringer testified that decedent made her own decision to have a cataract operation in February 1977. And Dr. Rieber Hovde described decedent as one of the most alert 89-year-old patients he has seen.

Reverend David Meeker was called as a witness by plaintiffs. Reverend Meeker served as pastor of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Lexington during 1976 and 1977, and became acquainted with decedent when she entered Mennonite Hospital in the fall of 1976. Although decedent was not a member of Reverend Meeker's church, he made pastoral calls on her and they had private visits once a week or once every two weeks. Reverend Meeker further testified that he noticed nothing unusual about decedent's speech, hearing, sight, or writing. However, when plaintiffs' counsel questioned Reverend Meeker about conversation with decedent, answers were refused on the basis of a clergyman's privilege. Reverend Meeker refused to state whether he had any conversation with decedent regarding her will in relationship to the Mennonite Hospital or Meadows-Mennonite Nursing Home.

Plaintiffs first challenge the trial court's ruling that the clergyman's privilege protects the information plaintiffs attempted to elicit from Reverend Meeker. This privilege is codified in "An Act relating to communications to clergymen and practitioners of religious denominations" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 51, par. 48.1), which provides:

"A clergyman, or priest or minister, rabbi or practitioner of any religious denomination accredited by the religious body to which he belongs, shall not be compelled to disclose in any court, or to any administrative board or agency, or to any public officer, a confession or admission made to him in his professional character or as a spiritual advisor in the course of the discipline enjoined by the rules or practices of such religious body or of the religion which he professes, nor be ...


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