MARCH 14, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 9
Let us be clear right up front. The California Court of Appeals ultimately agreed that Steven Wayne Stoker had successfully revoked a will favoring a former girlfriend. He also successfully revoked the trust created at the same time as that original will. In a sense, our headline is incorrect, since Stoker’s technique worked. But why in the world (other than for the good story thereby bequeathed to your children) would you ever use this technique to straighten out your estate planning? The right approach: talk to your lawyer, explain what you have already done and what you want to accomplish, and leave the revocation method in the hands of professionals.
Back to our story, which is admittedly both instructive and entertaining. Steven Wayne Stoker signed a will in 1997. In it he left some items of personal property to friends, but the residue (and bulk) of his estate was to go to the Steven Wayne Stoker Revocable Trust, which he had signed that same day. The trust named his girlfriend, Destiny Gularte, as trustee and beneficiary.
According to later testimony Mr. Stoker and Ms. Gularte had an angry argument several years later, and they separated permanently. One night about eight years after signing the will and trust, he apparently had a conversation with another friend about estate planning, and he resolved to change his will. At Mr. Stoker’s request the friend took down what Mr. Stoker dictated:
I, Steve Stoker revoke my 1997 trust as of August 28, 2005. Destiny Gularte and Judy Stoker to get nothing. Everything is to go to my kids Darin and Danene Stoker. Darin and Danene are to have power of attorney over everything I own.
Mr. Stoker signed this document, but (though two friends watched him sign it) no one signed as a witness. Mr. Stoker apparently did not notice that his friend had misspelled both Darrin’s and Danine’s names — the court record is silent as to who introduced those errors. Then he took out the original 1997 will, urinated on it, and set it on fire.
Three years later Mr. Stoker died, but without having done anything more formal to clarify his estate plan. His signature and his actions in 2005 raised a number of legal questions:
- Had he revoked the 1997 will?
- Was the 2005 will valid?
- If the 2005 will WAS valid, what effect did that have on the 1997 trust?
The California probate judge — who had listened to the testimony and assessed the credibility of the witnesses — found that the 2005 will expressed Mr. Stoker’s actual wishes, and that the 1997 will and trust had both been revoked. The California Court of Appeals agreed, and upheld the finding that Ms. Gularte would not receive anything from his estate.
It is important to note that state law differs, and that Arizona law would assess these actions differently — even though the outcome might ultimately be similar. Indeed, California had adopted changes in its probate laws in 2009 making it easier to show an individual’s intent even though the precise procedural rules might not have been followed. That change in law made it possible for the probate court to enforce Mr. Stoker’s apparent intent despite his not having secured two witnesses’ signatures, not having formally revoked his revocable living trust, and having taken an unusual approach to the revocation of his prior will. Estate of Stoker, March 3, 2011.
Would the same result be reached in Arizona? Perhaps, but for different reasons. Ideas to explore in an Arizona probate proceeding might include:
- Arizona permits “holographic” wills without witnesses, but requires the important parts to be in the testator’s own handwriting. Mr. Stoker’s will probably would not have complied with this requirement, since the handwriting was almost all his friend’s — even though he might have dictated the words.
- Arizona does have at least one court case allowing witnesses to sign later — even after the death of the person executing the will. Here there were apparently two actual witnesses, though they had not signed the document at the time. Could they sign attesting that they had witnessed the will even after Mr. Stoker’s death? Perhaps.
- On one point there is no question. Arizona permits revocation of an old will by any “revocatory act.” There is little doubt that urinating on and then burning the will would meet that requirement. (The appellate court, noting the practical difficulty of using this technique, observed that “we hesitate to speculate how he accomplished the second act after the first.”)
- While there is little doubt in Arizona that the successful revocation of his 1997 will would prevent transfer of additional assets to his revocable living trust after his death, it is less clear what would happen to assets he might have already transferred into the trust’s name. The California court opinion is unclear about whether there even were any such assets; if there were, Arizona law might lead to a different result. But even that is uncertain, since Arizona adopted a change in trust law as part of the Arizona Trust Code effective in 2009. Under the new provision, the court can usually treat any document as a trust amendment if it “manifest[s] clear and convincing evidence of the settlor’s intent.”
Mr. Stoker did leave his children a pretty good story, regardless of how much property and money they might have received. But our recommendation remains: if you want to make changes to your estate plan, the relatively small cost of getting professional assistance will pay off in the long run. We do endorse Mr. Stoker’s revocatory act: it left a convincing impression of his intent and wishes.