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James Thomas Dehart v. Blanca Dehart

March 6, 2012

JAMES THOMAS DEHART,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BLANCA DEHART, EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD M. DEHART, AND
BLANCA DEHART, INDIVIDUALLY,
AND PAULA GOMORA, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois Circuit No. 07-P-697 The Honorable J. Jeffrey Allen Judges, Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Holdridge

JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justice McDade specially concurred, with opinion.

Presiding Justice Schmidt concurred in part and dissented in part, with opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Plaintiff, James Thomas DeHart (James), filed a second amended complaint challenging the will of the decedent, Donald M. DeHart. In September 2009, the circuit court of Will County granted the motion to dismiss with prejudice of defendant, Blanca DeHart (Blanca). This appeal from the court's September 2009 order granting Blanca's motion to dismiss James's complaint with prejudice, and the December 2008 order dismissing James's motion to compel the deposition of attorney William J. Peters, followed. For the following reasons, we reverse the orders of the circuit court and remand the matter for further proceedings.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 James filed a complaint against Blanca DeHart, both as executor of the estate of Donald M. DeHart, deceased, and individually, challenging Donald's will. The circuit court of Will County admitted the will to probate in April 2007 and appointed Blanca independent executor. Although the will did not recite that Donald was of sound mind, it was witnessed by two persons who attested that, to the best of their knowledge, he was "of sound mind and under no constraint or undue influence" at the time he executed the will. In September 2007, James filed his initial complaint to contest the will in separate proceedings. The court later consolidated the two cases. Blanca filed a motion to dismiss James's complaint for lack of standing. The court denied that motion.

¶ 4 Later, James filed a motion to compel the deposition of attorney William J. Peters, who allegedly prepared the challenged will, and a subpoena for records. Blanca objected to the motion on the grounds of attorney-client privilege. In December 2008, the court denied James's motion to compel without prejudice. In March 2009, the court granted Blanca's motion to dismiss James's initial complaint without prejudice on the ground it alleged insufficient facts to state a cause of action.

¶ 5 In April 2009, James filed an amended complaint, and in July 2009, he filed a second amended complaint praying the court: (1) declare the purported will was not Donald's will; (2) declare that the purported will was null and void; (3) revoke letters of office issued to Blanca; and (4) distribute the estate pursuant to Donald's prior will or pursuant to law or equity.

¶ 6 The second amended complaint alleges that, during Donald's lifetime, he held James out to both individuals and institutions as his biological son. In May 2003, Donald made arrangements for his own funeral and listed James as his son. Donald listed James's children and grandchildren as his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In addition to telling members of the community over the years that James was his son, Donald provided James with a birth certificate naming himself as James's natural father.

¶ 7 Throughout his lifetime, Donald and James used the purported birth certificate for various reasons, including necessary verifications of birth for educational and medical purposes. However, in 2000, James attempted to use the birth certificate to obtain a passport, and the United States would not accept the purported record of James's birth, instead requiring him to produce a certified (raised stamp) copy of his birth certificate. James secured the certified copy and learned that his biological father's name was James Thomas Staley, Sr. The certified copy of James's true birth certificate lists his name as James Thomas Staley, Jr., and his birth date as May 23, 1944. In the complaint, James speculates that the original of the genuine birth certificate is within Blanca's control at Donald's residence.

¶ 8 James confronted Donald with the information contained on the certified copy of the true birth certificate. James's complaint alleges that Donald told him that his mother married Staley, James's biological father, after she became pregnant. Donald also allegedly told James that he adopted James in 1946 when James was two years old but that he and James's mother agreed to keep the adoption secret. Donald allegedly told James that he hired an attorney so that " it was all legal." There is no legal documentation of an adoption in the record. James's mother died in April 2001.

¶ 9 Even after the disclosure of the failure of a legal adoption, Donald continued to represent and describe James as his son. In 2005, Donald, James, and James's wife and children took a family vacation--with Donald assuming the bulk of the costs and expenses. The complaint also alleges the existence of a will that Donald prepared prior to the December 2006 will which provides bequests for James, James's children, and Donald's church.

¶ 10 Donald married Blanca in December 2005. James and his family were in attendance at the wedding. The complaint alleges that, in December 2006, Donald signed the purported will in the office of attorney William J. Peters. At that time, Donald was 84 years old and James was 61 years of age. The will states "I am married to Blanca DeHart. I have no children." The complaint alleges that Donald demonstrated he was of unsound mind when he signed the will and could not remember James, whom he had held out to the world as his son for nearly 60 years.

¶ 11 Following Donald's death in February 2007, Blanca caused the challenged will dated December 2006 to be filed. The complaint challenges the December 2006 will on grounds of testator incapacity (count I) and as being the product of undue influence by Blanca (count II). The complaint also alleges that Blanca fraudulently induced Donald into executing the new will (count III). Finally, the complaint seeks to set aside the purported will and compel a distribution of the estate under the prior will or pursuant to law or equity based on intentional interference with expectancy (count IV).

¶ 12 In July 2009, Blanca filed a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2006)) on the grounds the complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to state a cause of action. In September 2009, the circuit court of Will County granted Blanca's motion to dismiss with prejudice. This appeal followed. In addition to appealing the judgment of the court, James also appealed the circuit court's ruling denying his request to compel the deposition of attorney Peters.

¶ 13 ANALYSIS

¶ 14 The circuit court dismissed with prejudice the second amended complaint which contained four counts alleging: (1) Donald's lack of testamentary capacity; (2) Blanca's undue influence over Donald in the preparation of his 2006 will; (3) fraudulent inducement by Blanca to procure Donald's will; and (4) James's entitlement to a portion of Donald's estate as his adopted son, either by a contract of adoption or through an equitable remedy. "A motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615 attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. [Citation.] A court reviewing an order granting a section 2-615 motion takes all well-pled facts as true. [Citation.] On review of a section 2-615 dismissal, the court must determine whether the allegations of the complaint, when interpreted in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, sufficiently set forth a cause of action on which relief may be granted. [Citation.] A dismissal pursuant to section 2-615 is reviewed de novo." Uhlich Children's Advantage Network v. National Union Fire Co. of Pittsburgh, PA.,398 Ill. App. 3d 710, 714 (2010). We will address each of the four counts in the complaint in turn to determine whether the complaint stated a viable cause of action on each count.

¶ 15 I. TESTAMENTARY CAPACITY

¶ 16 James first maintains on appeal that the trial court erred in granting Blanca's motion to dismiss count I for failure to sufficiently state a cause of action for lack of testamentary capacity. To state a cause of action for lack of testamentary capacity, a plaintiff must allege facts which demonstrate that, at the time the will was executed, the testator lacked sufficient mental capacity to know and remember who were the natural objects of his bounty, to comprehend the kind and character of his property, and to make disposition of his property according to some plan formed in his mind. In re Estate of Sutera, 199 Ill. App. 3d 531, 536 (1990). The natural objects of a testator's bounty include those people related to him by ties of blood or affection, i.e., those who are or should be considered to be recipients of his bequests. In re Estate of Roeseler, 287 Ill. App. 3d 1003, 1013 (1997).

ΒΆ 17 In support of his claim that Donald lacked testamentary capacity, James alleged the following facts: (1) he was Donald's only son; (2) Donald had treated James throughout James's life as his son; (3) Donald acknowledged to numerous third parties throughout his life that James was his son, including on May 21, 2003, when he listed James as his "son" on a pre-arrangement funeral agreement; (4) Donald and Virginia, James's natural mother, gave a birth certificate to James purporting to acknowledge that Donald was James's father; (5) even after James confronted Donald with the fact that the birth certificate was not the same as one he requested from the registrar, Donald continued to insist that he had adopted James; and (6) Donald had executed a prior will acknowledging James as his son and James's children as his grandchildren. Accepting the well-pled facts as true, and interpreting each in the light most favorable ...


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