JANUARY 30, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 4
We are frequently surprised by how much trouble people cause for their families and heirs by not taking simple steps to properly plan for their estates. One thread that often recurs involves a fear (or perhaps disapproval) of lawyers, leading to failure to get good legal advice about planning, or about the execution of documents. This week we read about a different reaction, but with the same result. Florian T. Latek didn’t trust notaries.
Mr. Latek owned a small family farm in Indiana, but he lived (and owned real property) in Illinois. In 2009, with the help of a non-lawyer friend, he wrote a letter to the lawyer for a local charity he favored. The letter began “This is my will” and it proceeded to direct distribution of his entire estate to that charity and other recipients. Then he prepared four identical copies of the document, and signed each one.
Apparently Mr. Latek realized he should have the documents notarized, but he wrote that he did not trust notaries; instead, he included his Army serial number with the note that he hoped it would “be good for any legal matters.” Then he had some — but not all — of the copies witnessed by friends, and he secreted one copy (one that had no witnesses’ signatures) behind (not in) a small safe at the Indiana farm. Less than two months later, Mr. Latek died.
Probate proceedings were begun first in Illinois. The Illinois courts initially determined that Mr. Latek had no will; later, when the friend who had helped prepare the document got in touch with the charity named in the letters, the unwitnessed version was found at the farmhouse. When the charity’s lawyer attempted to introduce that will in the Illinois courts, it was initially rejected because it did not meet the Illinois requirements for a will to be valid. Later a copy with witnesses’ signatures was located, but the lawyer could not produce the witnesses to testify about the signing of the letter in the time given by the Illinois court to prove the validity of the will. The result: the Illinois property would pass according to the law of intestate succession, to Mr. Latek’s cousins (he had no children).
Meanwhile, the charity’s lawyer filed one of the letters with the Indiana courts for admission as Mr. Latek’s last will. If admitted, it would control the distribution of the family farm. The personal representative appointed in Illinois objected, arguing that Illinois had already decided that the will was invalid and the Indiana courts were bound by that finding.
The Indiana probate judge disagreed. The will was admitted to probate in Indiana, and the lawyer for the charity was appointed to administer Mr. Latek’s Indiana estate.
The personal representative appointed in Illinois appealed in Indiana. He argued that the U.S. Constitution requires each state to give “full faith and credit” to the rulings of sister states; once the Illinois courts had rejected Mr. Latek’s letter as a will, according to this argument, the Indiana courts were required to adopt the same ruling. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with that argument, and upheld the Indiana probate court’s admission of Mr. Latek’s letter as his last will. Matter of Latek, January 4, 2012.
What does Mr. Latek’s estate tell the rest of us? A number of things jump out:
- It just makes sense to get help with setting up one’s estate plan. Assuming that it will all work out, that one’s Army serial number ought to prove one’s wishes, or that notaries are unreliable are not good ideas when dealing with the legal effect of documents. It is touching to note that Mr. Latek also told the charity’s lawyer that he should “tell the judge that we were classmates and do the very best you can,” but that just makes it harder to understand why he did not consult with a lawyer he obviously knew and trusted. Would the lawyer have charged him? Of course. But his wishes might have actually been carried out, rather than two different proceedings with two different results.
- Mr. Latek looks like a classic example of the kind of person who ought to be considering a living trust. Rather than relying on two different probate courts to come to the same conclusion, he could have transferred both his Illinois real estate and his Indiana real estate — along with all his personal property — to a trust that would have been governed by the law of one state or the other. Would that have cost him something to set up? Yes. It would also have permitted his estate to be managed and distributed in a coherent and effective way, at (ultimately) lower cost than two separate probate proceedings in Illinois and Indiana. That would especially have proven to be true when the cost of one appellate case is factored in. If you own real property in two different states, you should particularly pay attention to the outcome for Mr. Latek’s estate.
- State laws vary with regard to the formalities of wills. Some states require notarization OR two witnesses. Some states permit unwitnessed wills to be effective, provided that they are signed and in the signer’s handwriting. But here’s a piece of news for do-it-yourself fans: ALL U.S. states would treat a will as effective if it has both two witnesses and a notary. Yes, some states require the signer, the witnesses and the notary to all have been together at the signing — so it just makes sense to do it that way at a minimum.