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Parson v. Miller

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 20, 2018



         PRESENT: All the Justices



         In this appeal of a judgment in a will contest, we consider whether the trial court erred in refusing to grant the defendant's motion to strike the evidence and by holding that the evidence was sufficient as a matter of law to support the jury's verdict that the will was the result of undue influence.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         A. The Complaint

         In December 2014, Deneen L. Miller ("Miller") filed an amended complaint in the Circuit Court of Augusta County ("trial court") against Vickie M. Parson ("Parson"), individually and as executor of the estate of Kenneth Cyrus Coffey ("Coffey"), and against Coffey's heirs. According to the complaint, Coffey, who was Miller's father, executed a new will on July 15, 2013, shortly before his death on July 22, 2013 (the "2013 will"). The 2013 will, which was attached as an exhibit, identified Parson, Coffey's niece, as the beneficiary of Coffey's residuary estate. The 2013 will also appointed Parson as executor and contained no other dispositions or gifts. The complaint sought to impeach the 2013 will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity (count I), and undue influence (count II).

         B. Miller's Evidence

         The matter proceeded to a two-day jury trial. Miller testified at trial that Coffey was her father and he was 80 years old when he died. Coffey had lived in Lyndhurst, Virginia, on a large parcel of property. Parson, Coffey's niece, lived on an adjoining parcel of property. Miller had lived at Coffey's home as a young child, but she and her mother had moved away when she was 11 years old. Miller and Coffey reconnected when Miller was 14 years old, and Miller testified that she maintained a close relationship with him from that point on. Miller testified that since she was 18 years old, Coffey had wanted her to come and live with him. However, Miller continued to live in Winchester, approximately two hours away from Coffey. Miller further testified that Coffey also told her "that one day he wasn't going to be there and that everything was to be given to me." The last time Miller recalled Coffey making a statement about leaving her everything was in April or May of 2013. Miller stated that during this discussion, Coffey also showed Miller where he kept his important documents, including his will. However, Miller admitted that she never actually saw the contents of the will.

         Miller testified that Coffey was first admitted to the hospital in May 2013. She admitted that she did not visit him during that first hospital stay. He was admitted to the hospital again on June 6, 2013, and was released around June 18, 2013. Although Coffey was able to come home, he was only expected to live for a few months and was placed in hospice care. Miller testified that she assisted Coffey by giving him medications, preparing his meals, and making him comfortable. However, she admitted that she did not visit every week in June and July of 2013. Miller testified that during her visits in June, she observed Coffey have at least two hallucinations, and she told the hospice workers about them. Miller also admitted that Coffey wanted her to move in with him, but she did not do so.

         Miller acknowledged that Parson was also helping Coffey during his illness. When Miller first learned that Parson was helping to care for Coffey, Miller testified that "I thought she was a blessing and I thanked her." However, Miller testified that Coffey was not happy about Parson helping him. Miller stated that Coffey "was upset that [Parson] signed [the hospice agreement] because he did not want [Parson] in the house at all." Miller also testified that Coffey was upset on another one of her visits because "[Parson] had just came in and offered that she wanted to purchase the property from him, her and her husband Jack Parson, and he was angry."

         Miller testified that the last time she visited her father was on July 6, 2013. She was not able to reach him by telephone after that date. Parson informed Miller that Coffey was upset with Miller and did not want her there. Miller wrote Coffey a letter around July 18 or 19, in which she stated that she wished she knew why Coffey was angry with her, and why "you've turned your heart from me." She also apologized to Coffey for not being with him but explained that she lived 125 miles away. Miller testified that she was unaware of Coffey's mental state when he signed the 2013 will, but she believed Parson manipulated Coffey and gained control over him. Miller stated, "I think she manipulated him. I think she put things in his head. I think she worked her way into my dad's house when I was not there." But when asked what specifically Parson did to gain control of Coffey, Miller replied, "I don't know."

         Miller testified that the first time she learned of Coffey's 2013 will was on the day he died. Parson called Miller to tell her Coffey had died, and that Coffey had left everything he owned to Parson. Miller testified that the next day she drove to Coffey's house to look for Coffey's will and other important papers, but the locks had been changed. Miller then went to Parson's house, and Parson handed her a bag with some items that belonged to Miller and told Miller not to go onto Coffey's property or Parson would have her arrested.

         Shawn Coffey, Miller's brother and one of Coffey's sons, testified that Coffey had previously told him that Coffey intended "to leave everything" to Miller. Shawn testified that he visited his father twice in the hospital in June 2013. During one visit, Coffey stated that he did not know why Miller kept driving back and forth because Coffey's house "was going to be hers and he didn't know why she didn't - she didn't go there and stay." Shawn testified that during this conversation Coffey was "strong-headed" but he was physically weak. Shawn admitted, however, that during his visits, Coffey never mentioned his will. The last time Shawn spoke to Coffey was June 16, 2013. Shawn admitted that he had no knowledge regarding Coffey's state of mind during the last month of his life, or whether anyone exerted influence over him.

         Catherine Harvey, a close friend of Miller's, testified that she often spent time with Miller and Coffey. During those visits, Coffey mentioned that he wanted Miller to move down to live with him, because the house and property were "going to her eventually anyway." Harvey also testified that on several occasions she saw Coffey take out a brown package that held his will, and that on one visit, he read a paragraph from the will out loud.

         Mary Wymer, Miller's former sister-in-law and friend, testified that she visited Coffey's house with Miller on several occasions. Wymer described Coffey as someone who was "very forward" and "said what he thought." She had visited Coffey in the hospital in June 2013, and testified that he was upset when she arrived. Parson had just been to see him and asked about buying his property, which had upset Coffey. According to Wymer, Coffey "told them he wasn't going to sell his property, that he was going to leave it to [Miller]." Wymer testified that she had heard Coffey say something similar on previous occasions about wanting Miller to have his house. Wymer admitted that she did not see Coffey in the two weeks prior to his death, and she never spoke to him in July 2013 about his will.

         Miller called Parson to testify as an adverse witness. Parson testified that she had lived down the street from Coffey for more than 20 years, but she had only come to know him well in the last two years of his life. Parson admitted that she purchased a will kit for Coffey in June 2013, at his request. The 2013 will was signed by her sister, Lisa Shaw, and her son-in-law, Keven Brenneman. Parson, however, did not prepare the 2013 will. Parson admitted that Coffey was a rather difficult person to be around. She testified that he was a very particular person who "liked things his way."

         At this point in the trial, Miller rested. Parson then made a motion to strike both counts. The trial court granted the motion to strike with respect to count I (testamentary capacity), but denied the motion as to count II (undue influence).

         C. Parson's Evidence

         Parson's first witness was Kevin Brenneman. He testified that Parson was his mother-in-law. Brenneman stated that he had known Coffey for four years and described Coffey as "very set in his ways." On July 4, 2013, Coffey asked if Brenneman would do him a favor, that Coffey had something he wanted Brenneman to sign. On July 13, 2013, Brenneman was visiting Coffey again and Coffey said that "the date was set to sign and we were going to sign it on the 15th." Brenneman testified that Coffey made these arrangements, not Parson. At no time did Parson ask Brenneman to do this. Parson was also not present on July 15, 2013, when the 2013 will was signed. The other people present when the 2013 will was signed, in addition to Coffey and Brenneman, were Lisa Shaw, Brenneman's wife, Brenneman's wife's grandmother, and Brenneman's wife's aunt. Brenneman testified that when the 2013 will was signed, Coffey was directing everyone. No one told Coffey to sign the 2013 will. The 2013 will was not read aloud, and Coffey did not tell them the terms of the 2013 will. Brenneman did not know who had prepared the 2013 will. The other witness who signed the 2013 will was Lisa Shaw, but she did not testify at trial.

         Paul Gunick, who was a close friend of Coffey's for over 30 years, testified that he visited Coffey every day while he was sick, except for the last two weeks of Coffey's life when Gunick was out of town. But Gunick spoke to Coffey on the phone every day during the last two weeks. Gunick saw Miller at Coffey's house one time during his visits when Coffey was sick. Miller was outside smoking with a friend, and Gunick testified that Coffey was upset that they wouldn't come in the house. Gunick testified that during one of his visits he asked Coffey if he had a will, and Coffey responded that he did not. Gunick told Coffey he needed to make one. Gunick testified that Coffey wanted Miller to come stay with him and take care of him but Miller would not do so. Coffey also told Gunick that if he left his house to Miller, she was just going to sell it and he wanted the property to stay in the family.

         Gunick testified that Parson and her husband Jack were always at Coffey's house in the last couple months of his life. Parson would feed Coffey and take care of him. Gunick testified that Coffey was difficult to take care of. But when Coffey had visitors, Parson would leave them alone with Coffey. Gunick stated that even in the last month when he was ...

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