MAY 14, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 19
In Arizona (as in most other states) there is an important rule about wills: if the original document was in the possession of it’s signer, and it can not be found after the signer’s death, then there is a presumption that it was destroyed. Not only that, but the presumption is that the signer destroyed it, and that he intended to revoke his will by doing so. Arizona’s statute on missing wills is pretty clear. What is less clear is how to apply the statute in real cases with individualized facts.
The logic of the presumption is pretty clear. One can revoke one’s will by committing a “revocatory act” upon it, according to a different section of Arizona’s probate code. So if tearing up, or burning, your will is sufficient to revoke it, well, if it has gone missing the system is simply going to presume that that’s what you did.
Of course people lose their original wills all the time. Sometimes surviving relatives or friends know what became of the original. Sometimes it doesn’t make very much difference (if, for instance, the will simply leaves everything to family members in the same proportions they would receive if there had not been a will at all — or if there are no assets in the decedent’s name, everything having been transferred into a living trust, or placed in joint tenancy, or spent). Sometimes everyone can agree that the loss was accidental, and that a copy should be admitted to probate. Sometimes none of those things are true.
Take the case of Warren Alexander (not his real name). When he died, at age 94, his original will could not be found. What could be found was a copy of the will, a copy of three codicils he had signed over the years, and the original of his fourth codicil. The fourth codicil contained some changed language and, as is usually the case when lawyers draft codicils, added a line at the end that said he was otherwise republishing (readopting might be a more familiar term) his original will.
What does that mean? Does it depend on the sequence of events? Assuming that Warren actually destroyed his original will and intended to revoke it, would it make any difference whether that was before or after he signed the fourth codicil?
The Arizona probate court hearing the case decided that the codicil was valid (the original had been found, after all, and it was properly executed). Because it contained language incorporating at least some of the provisions of the original will, those provisions were still valid as well. The fourth codicil was admitted to probate.
Family members would inherit Warren’s estate if there had not been a valid will at all. One of them appealed the probate court’s ruling, but the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with the probate judge’s decision. According to the appellate judges, the probate judge had not admitted a missing will to probate — he had admitted a codicil that incorporated some or most of the terms of that missing will. In fact, observed the Court of Appeals, the codicil really was a will; although we think of codicils as amending wills, they are themselves testamentary instruments with all the power and effect of a will. Estate of Andreson, May 4, 2012.
What does Warren’s probate tell the rest of us about what we should do? A few suggestions come to mind:
- Keep track of original documents. Some of them are not themselves important (though the rules may vary from state to state). The deed to your house, for instance — in Arizona, it is not important to keep that original, provided that it has been recorded. Your living trust is generally still valid even if the original can’t be found. But it would be good to keep all the original documents in one place.
- If you really do want to revoke your will, do it by signing a new will rather than tearing up your old one. And for goodness’ sake, talk to a professional. The small cost of involving a lawyer will be saved many times over by your heirs and devisees.
- Periodically review your documents, and go looking for originals. If you can’t find them, ask your lawyer to redo them and sign new originals.
- Rather than amending a will four times you probably want to consider just redoing the whole thing. That reduces the number of documents you have to keep track of, it reduces the likelihood of inadvertent errors, and it simplifies your estate planning. It also probably costs no more than successive codicils (lawyers don’t usually charge by the word, despite the jokes we have all heard).