The rest is mine, or is it? The Estate of Gertrude Vanderworth

With the release of Superman Returns to Netflix, I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to talk about the opening scene in which Lex Luthor has billionaires Gertrude Vanderworth sign a last will and testament. This raises some questions. Can a will be valid without witnesses? If so, under what conditions, and are there any challenges to a will drafted and executed under these conditions? In the estate of Gertrude Vanderworth there are legal questions which arise casting doubt on the wills authenticity.

Witnesses

In all states, with the sole exception of Pennsylvania for a will to be valid there must be two witnesses. A beneficiary can sign a will as a witness but they will give up their share of the testator’s (the person that the will is for) estate. Witnesses are usually required so they can validate a will. In Pennsylvania witnesses are not required; this is an important fact as in the movie there are no witnesses able to testify that the decedent (testator after they die) had mental capacity at the signing of the will. DC Comics has a history of being vague about the location of things, presumably to create plot points wherever they may be needed. To keep the discussion interesting, we’ll examine the probate of the Vanderworth estate as if it were within the state of Pennsylvania. Otherwise this will is invalid on execution.

Questionable Signature

The audience knows that Lex Luthor forged the end of Ms. Vanderworth’s signature as she died during the signing. A testator may direct someone to sign a will in their stead or to use a mark in place of their signature; in these instances, even in Pennsylvania, the will requires two witnesses. So, if the forgery were discovered this would invalidate the will.

Undue Influence

The will could be challenged on the basis of “undue influence” and the possibility of fraud which is not required but can fall under the same findings. The legal question here is on how the courts define undue influence. In Pennsylvania the court held that:

“…where the evidence shows (1) bodily infirmity and (2) greatly weakened mental capacity of the testator, and (3) a stranger to the blood of testator, (4) standing in a confidential relation, (5) who is benefited by a will (6) which he has been instrumental in having written, a presumption of undue influence arises. See, Boyd v. Boyd, 66 Pa. 283, 293-94 (1870); Wilson v. Mitchell, 101 Pa. 495 (1882); Stewart Will, 354 Pa. 288, 296, 47 A.2d 204 (1946); Quein Will, 361 Pa. 133, 62 A.2d 909 (1949).”

There is a newer rule that deals with limited intellect but I do not believe that fits the facts of the case. Using the above rule we can examine the facts of the case. Ms. Vanderworth is infirm at the signing of the will she is literally dying. The beneficiary is a stranger to her blood in that they are not related. They shared an intimate marital relation which undoubtedly creates the requirement of confidential relation. Lex Luthor is the sole beneficiary of the will. While we do not see who has written the will it is Mr. Luthor that presents the will to be signed. With these conditions met we turn to the only remaining factor: mental capacity.

Mental Capacity

Ms. Vanderworth has implied that “others” have sent her messages. This by itself does not prove anything, but if this is out of her character to respond it may be evidence of a weakened mental capacity. Another factor is that she ignores the pleas of her family outside the door to her room. This can show a lack of awareness which can be an indicator a lack of mental capacity.

Influencing Circumstances

The judge in this case would also look at the actions surrounding the end of Ms. Vanderworth. Shortly after the signing of the will took place, Mr. Luthor did several things in the span of a few minutes which would bring this into question. He removed a wig, demonstrating he did not present himself in a straitforward manner to Ms. Vanderworth. He frightens one of her heirs with that wig which shows that it was an unexpected reveal. He declares he wants everyone to leave “my house” in a loud manner. The final action taken was bringing the maid with him as he leaves the house. Ms. Vanderworth’s body is not yet cold and he moved onto the maid who showed no surprise or remorse demonstrating a plan of action.

All factors being weighed and the criteria having been met for undue influence, the burden of proof would shift to Mr. Luthor to prove he did not unduly influence Ms. Vanderworth.

Under this analysis it appears that the will executed by Ms. Vanderworth would be deemed invalid under the laws of Pennsylvania due to undue influence and furthermore the will would be invalid in any other state due to the lack of witnesses to Ms. Vanderworth’s testamentary capacity.

It looks like Lex should have just taken out a multimillion dollar insurance policy on Ms. Gertrude Vanderworth. It may not have been as much but it would save him the trouble of probate.

Image: Lex Lurther Image Copyright by Warner Bros. and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.

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