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James Thomas Dehart, Appellee v. Blanca Dehart

March 21, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

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

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


¶ 1 Plaintiff, James Thomas DeHart, filed a six-count, second-amended complaint against Blanca DeHart, in her individual capacity and as executor of the estate of Donald M. DeHart (Donald), deceased, contesting Donald's will dated December 4, 2006, and raising claims of lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraudulent inducement, tortious interference with economic expectancy, contract for adoption and equitable adoption. The circuit court of Will County dismissed with prejudice all of plaintiff's counts. The circuit court also denied plaintiff's motion to compel the deposition of William J. Peters, the attorney who drafted the disputed will. Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed the dismissal of all six counts and reversed the denial of the motion to compel the deposition of attorney Peters. The appellate court's decision was unanimous on all matters, except on the contract-for-adoption count, in which case one justice dissented, finding that there were insufficient factual allegations to support a cause of action for that claim. 2012 IL App (3d) 090773. This court subsequently allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010).


¶ 3 The following facts were alleged in plaintiff's second amended complaint and are set forth in the appellate court's opinion. During Donald's lifetime and for more than 60 years, he held plaintiff out to both individuals and institutions as his biological son. In May 2003, Donald made arrangements for his own funeral and listed plaintiff as his son. Donald listed plaintiff's children and grandchildren as his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In addition to telling members of the community over the years that plaintiff was his son, Donald provided plaintiff with a birth certificate that listed Donald as plaintiff's natural father. Throughout their lifetimes, Donald and plaintiff used the purported birth certificate, to conduct the affairs of life (until the year 2000), using it to enroll plaintiff in grade school and high school and using it to convey to those requesting proof of identity that plaintiff was Donald's son.

¶ 4 In 2000, however, plaintiff attempted to use the birth certificate to obtain a passport, and the United States passport office would not accept it as a record of plaintiff's birth, instead requiring him to produce a certified (raised stamp) copy of his birth certificate. Plaintiff obtained the certified copy from the Cook County Office of Vital Statistics and learned that it was identical in most respects, except it listed his name as James Thomas Staley, Jr. and his father's name as James Thomas Staley, Sr., and did not mention "DeHart" after his mother's maiden name. Both birth certificates listed plaintiff's birth date as May 23, 1944.

¶ 5 Plaintiff then confronted Donald with the information contained on the certified copy of the newly obtained birth certificate. In response, Donald said that plaintiff's mother, Virginia, married Staley, plaintiff's biological father, after she became pregnant out of wedlock in 1943. Donald also told plaintiff that he adopted plaintiff in 1946 when plaintiff was two years old, but he had agreed with Virginia to keep the adoption a secret for the good of plaintiff and the family. As part of this agreement, Donald and Virginia agreed to celebrate their wedding anniversary, but never discuss how many years they had been married. Donald also explained in no uncertain terms that he had hired a lawyer in Homewood, Illinois, to handle the adoption so that "it was all legal."

¶ 6 There is no legal documentation of an adoption in the record.

Plaintiff's mother, Virginia, died in April 2001. She was suffering from early onset dementia at the time plaintiff learned of the information on the certified birth certificate. James Staley, Sr., abandoned plaintiff and Virginia when plaintiff was two years old and has had no contact with plaintiff in the ensuing six decades.

¶ 7 Even after plaintiff confronted Donald in 2000 about the birth certificates, Donald continued to represent and describe plaintiff as his son. In May 2003, Donald made funeral arrangements listing plaintiff as his son. In the spring of 2005, Donald, plaintiff and plaintiff's wife and children took a family vacation-with Donald assuming the bulk of the costs and expenses. Donald also executed a will that was prepared prior to December 2006 that provided bequests for plaintiff, plaintiff's children and Donald's church. This prior will was prepared by the law firm of Krusemark and Krusemark in Frankfort, Illinois, and plaintiff alleges that the original is in the exclusive control of defendant who is either preventing it from surfacing or has destroyed it.

¶ 8 Donald met defendant while she was working at a jewelry counter at a Tinley Park Sam's Club in the spring of 2005. The two were married on December 5, 2005; at that time, Donald was 83 years old and defendant was 54 years old. Donald invited plaintiff to the wedding and reception. But the complaint does not mention whether plaintiff attended the wedding.

¶ 9 The complaint alleges that on December 4, 2006-the day before Donald's and defendant's first wedding anniversary-Donald signed the contested will in the office of attorney William J. Peters. At that time, Donald was 84 years old. The will states, "I am married to Blanca DeHart. I have no children." The complaint further alleges that Donald demonstrated he was of unsound mind and memory when he signed the will and could not remember plaintiff-now 61 years old-whom Donald had held out to all the world as his son for nearly 60 years.

¶ 10 The complaint further alleges that in the months between the wedding of defendant and Donald and the execution of the contested will, defendant developed and maintained a position of trust and confidence, amounting to a fiduciary relationship with Donald. Despite the fact that she had only been married to Donald a short time and he had amassed his wealth over 84 years of his life, she became joint tenants with Donald on real estate, bank accounts and brokerage accounts worth millions of dollars. She also obtained a power of attorney to act on Donald's behalf, and exercised significant control over Donald's real estate dealings, including the sale of the family farm.

¶ 11 The complaint also alleges that defendant made several misrepresentations to Donald concerning plaintiff and his character, each of which was told to Donald shortly before the execution of the will on December 4, 2006. In particular, defendant lied to Donald by telling him that plaintiff was not his son and by not telling Donald that plaintiff and other family members had called him on the telephone and had sent cards and letters, as well as intercepting and destroying those cards and letters. Defendant's lies were made in order to improperly force and persuade Donald to alter his will by providing exclusively for her, as opposed to plaintiff, who would otherwise inherit as next of kin or, alternatively, as specifically stated in Donald's prior will. Donald, succumbing to defendant's influence, executed the will on December 4, 2006, stating that he had "no children," when in fact he did. The complaint alleges that under all of these circumstances, the will was the product of defendant's influence and therefore not the last will of Donald.

¶ 12 Donald died in February 2007, a couple of months after executing the will in question on December 4, 2006. After Donald's death, defendant filed that will in the circuit court of Will County. Plaintiff's second amended complaint challenges that will on the grounds of testator incapacity (count I) and as the product of undue influence by defendant (count II). The complaint also alleges that defendant fraudulently induced Donald into executing the new will (count III), and it seeks to set aside the purported will and compel distribution of the estate under the prior will or pursuant to law or equity based on intentional interference with testamentary expectancy (count IV). Finally, the complaint alleges that Donald entered into a contract to adopt plaintiff (count V), and that in any event, an equitable adoption occurred under the circumstances and that Donald's estate is therefore estopped from denying plaintiff as an heir at law (count VI). Additionally, plaintiff sought to compel the deposition testimony of William J. Peters, the attorney who prepared the December 2006 will, and defendant objected on the basis of attorney-client privilege.

¶ 13 In July 2009, defendant moved to dismiss the second amended complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2008)), arguing that the complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to state a cause of action. The circuit court dismissed with prejudice all of plaintiff's counts and denied his motion to compel the deposition of attorney Peters.

¶ 14 Plaintiff appealed. The appellate court unanimously reversed the dismissal of counts I through IV and count VI, along with the denial of the motion to compel the deposition testimony of attorney Peters. 2012 IL App (3d) 090773. A majority of the court also reversed the dismissal of count V. Id. ¶ 42. With respect to that count, Justice Schmidt dissented, believing that the complaint failed to identify the parties to the contract to adopt and whether the agreement was oral or written, and therefore plaintiff failed to allege a valid cause of action on that count. Id. ¶¶ 62-63 (Schmidt, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Although the appellate court unanimously concluded that dismissal of the equitable adoption count must be reversed, Justice McDade wrote separately to emphasize her belief that whether a claim for equitable adoption can be recognized in this state should ultimately be resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court. Id.

¶¶ 55-58 (McDade, J., specially concurring).

¶ 15 Defendant filed a petition for leave to appeal (Ill. S. Ct. R. 315

(eff. Feb. 26, 2010)), which we granted.


¶ 17 Before this court, defendant requests that the appellate court's decision be reversed in its entirety. She claims that plaintiff failed to set forth sufficient facts to state a cause of action with respect to each of his counts. She also argues that the attorney-client privilege should be applied to prevent the taking of attorney Peters' deposition in the event that any of plaintiff's counts survive.

¶ 18 As noted above, the circuit court dismissed plaintiff's second amended complaint in its entirety after defendant brought a section 2-615 motion to dismiss. Such a motion attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Bajwa v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., 208 Ill. 2d 414, 421 (2004). When ruling on a section 2-615 motion to dismiss, a court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint, as well as any reasonable inferences that may arise from them. Doe v. Chicago Board of Education, 213 Ill. 2d 19, 28 (2004). Moreover, a cause of action should be dismissed under section 2-615 only if it is clearly apparent from the pleadings that no set of facts can be proven that would entitle the plaintiff to recover. Bajwa, 208 Ill. 2d at 421.

The crucial inquiry is whether the allegations of the complaint, when construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are sufficient to establish a cause of action on which relief may be granted. Bonhomme v. St. James, 2012 IL 112393, ¶ 34. Our review of an order granting a section 2-615 motion to dismiss is de novo. Id.

¶ 19 I. Lack of Testamentary Capacity

ΒΆ 20 Every person who is at least 18 years old and is of "sound mind and memory has power to bequeath by will the real and personal estate which he has at the time of his death." 755 ILCS 5/4-1 (West 2010). Thus, it has long been established that to prevail in a will contest where the testator is of legal age, a plaintiff need only show that the will in question was the product of an unsound mind or memory. American Bible Society v. Price, 115 Ill. 623, 635 (1886). The standard test of testamentary capacity, i.e., soundness of mind and memory, is that "the testator must be capable of knowing what his property is, who are the natural objects of his bounty, and also be able to understand the nature, consequence, and effect of the act of executing a will." Dowie v. Sutton, 227 Ill. 183, 196 (1907); see also In re Estate of Sutera, 199 Ill. App. 3d 531, 536 (1990). The absence of any one of these requirements would indicate a lack of testamentary capacity. Dowie, 227 Ill. at 196. Thus, if one is able to remember his property and understand the nature, consequences and effect of executing a will, but is incapable of knowing who the natural objects of his bounty are, he is not legally capable of making a will. Dowie, 227 Ill. at 196. The natural objects of one's bounty include those people related to him by ties of blood or affection, and thus are those who are or should be considered to be recipients of his bequests. See In re Estate of Roeseler, 287 Ill. App. 3d 1003, 1013 (1997). It is also possible for testamentary capacity to be destroyed if one suffers from a mental delusion as to one of the objects of his bounty, even though he may recall other objects of his bounty on the face of ...

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