VICKIE M. PARSON, INDIVIDUALLY, ET AL.
DENEEN L. MILLER
THE CIRCUIT COURT OF AUGUSTA COUNTY Victor V. Ludwig, Judge.
All the Justices
W. LEMONS CHIEF JUSTICE.
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.
Facts and Proceedings
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).
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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).
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.
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.
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