Posts Tagged ‘missing will’

Can a Copy of a Missing Will be Admitted to Probate?

AUGUST 15, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 30
You’ve signed your will. We’ve given you the original in a fancy envelope, and a copy showing your signatures. What should you do with it?

For most people, most of the time, it is sufficient to just keep the original will in a convenient place at home. What to do with the copy? Put it in a different, but also safe, place. Include a note telling your family where to look for the original.

What happens if we can’t find your will after you die? It may not mean that your estate plan is frustrated, but consider what happened to estate planning documents signed by Irene Wilson (not her real name).

Irene was a librarian and an author of children’s books, and she lived in Maryland. She never married, and had no children. She did have a niece and a nephew — her closest relatives — but she was not particularly close to them.

After her retirement, Irene moved to rural Pennsylvania. By age 87 she was still living at home but unable to easily get up her stairs; she set up a first-floor bedroom for herself. She also had a cousin who lived upstairs and helped take care of her.

In 2007 Irene contacted a local Pennsylvania lawyer about updating her will. She named a long-time friend as executrix (what we in Arizona would call personal representative) and left most of her estate to her church back in Maryland. Three years later she updated the will with a new codicil, naming her live-in caretaker as execturix; at the same time she transferred her home to the church she attended in Pennsylvania, reserving a life estate for herself.

Both the original will and the original codicil were carefully placed in an unlocked metal box near her bedroom on the first floor; “conformed” copies of both were in a locked safe in an upstairs bedroom. The attorney who prepared both documents also kept a “conformed” copy.

Pause a moment for explanation: what is a “conformed” copy? In modern usage, it is a photocopy of the original, unsigned document, with a notation like “/s/” placed on the signature blocks. Sometimes a stamped representation of the signer’s name is placed on the signature block. In either case, it indicates that the original was signed — though the signature itself is not usually copied.

Six months after Irene signed her will and placed her conformed copies near her downstairs bedroom, her niece came for a visit. It did not go well. The niece told Irene that there were important family documents and heirlooms that she wanted to receive on Irene’s death. She also told Irene that she should move out of her house and into a nursing home. Irene was upset by the visit, and by the follow-up phone calls from her niece.

A few months after the niece’s visit, Irene’s lawyer called on her at home. She did not say anything about wanting to change or revoke her will, or about any changes in her plans.

Irene died a week after the lawyer’s home visit. When her caretaker went to the house to retrieve the original will, she found an empty envelope in the downstairs box, and all of the papers missing from the safe upstairs. Oddly, the original codicil and some other papers were still in the downstairs box; the copies of those documents were missing from the safe.

Let’s stop here for a moment for reflection. Did Irene have a valid will? Can the copy of her will from her lawyer’s file be admitted to probate?

Ready to proceed? Do you have your answer?

There is a presumption under Pennsylvania law (which governed Irene’s probate case, since she lived and died in that state) that when an original will was in the decedent’s possession before death but can’t be found. The presumption makes sense: it is that the decedent must have destroyed the original with the intent to revoke it. The same presumption, by the way, exists under Arizona law (and, probably, under the probate laws of most or all of the U.S. states).

The Pennsylvania probate court (it’s actually called orphan’s court, but no matter) ruled that the evidence suggested that Irene had not intended to revoke her will, and the lawyer’s conformed copy was admitted to probate. The next level of review, however, resulted in the opposite outcome: the Pennsylvania Superior court reversed, ruling that two witnesses would have had to testify that they actually saw Irene sign the original document. That meant the will was invalid, though the codicil (which was still intact in the metal box) would be effective. Irene’s caretaker would be in charge of her estate, but her niece and nephew would inherit most of her wealth.

Was that your prediction? If not, then you might take comfort in the next step. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the intermediate ruling, returning the outcome to the probate court’s finding: the copy of Irene’s will was, after all, admitted to probate. The Supreme Court found that the lawyer’s testimony about witnesses to the original will was sufficient — there was no need to produce the actual witnesses to testify about the signing. In re Estate of Wilner, July 24, 2016.

Would the same thing happen in Arizona? Yes, almost certainly. Given how easy it is to make photocopies, most lawyers today would have copied the will after signature rather than making conforming marks on a copy, but the outcome would not be different in most cases. The key is whether there is a legitimate explanation about why the original might be missing, more than whether specific technical requirements have been met.

So what should people do with their original wills? Put them in a safe place. Tell someone — the person named as personal representative, close family members, or someone — where the originals are located. Keep track of originals over the years (do you know where your original will is right now?). But what happened to Irene is unlikely to happen if you are leaving your entire estate to your children in equal shares (or to your only niece and nephew).

Lessons From a Day in Probate Court

JULY 7, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 24

One day last week I found myself sitting in probate court, watching other cases get resolved while waiting for the Judge to get to my own cases. The matters I was listening to seemed to me to be instructive, and give me a chance to share some observations from the perspective of a veteran probate court participant.

In the almost forty years I’ve been practicing in probate court, some things have changed quite a bit. Others have not. One that has changed dramatically is the now-common practice of probate court litigants doing things themselves, without hiring a lawyer. That was almost unheard of in the 1970s, but is now commonplace. More than half of the cases I watched did not have a lawyer involved.

On top of that trend, Arizona has engaged in a decade-long experiment in certifying non-lawyers to prepare legal documents. The Arizona Certified Legal Document Preparer Program has been run by the Supreme Court since 2003, and there are more than 500 Certified Legal Document Preparers across the state. They have undergone a background check and passed a test — and they can prepare pleadings for probate, divorce and other actions, as well as wills (and even trusts). The key is that they are not supposed to practice law — they can help you fill out forms, but not be your lawyer. Other states (notably Washington) are following or considering a similar path.

Everyone knows that lawyers are expensive, that we complicate matters unnecessarily, that we are slow and unresponsive. Legal document preparers should alleviate those problems, right? That’s not exactly what I saw in my day in probate court. In two cases I think document preparers failed to serve their clients well. In a third, with no lawyer or document preparer involved, a little help would have made the litigants’ lives easier, I’m pretty sure.

Exhibit One: a simple probate (I’ve learned that “simple” is a dangerous word in this context, but let’s keep using it). It involved a decedent who left five children, a will and a house — and not much else. One son and a son-in-law were named as personal representatives in his will, and his son-in-law (as he explained to the court while I listened) took responsibility for getting the probate proceedings going. He contacted a document preparer to get him started.

The document preparer required a $1,200 fee up front, and promised to have the paperwork ready shortly. After months of trying to get back in touch with the document preparer, though, the son-in-law finally figured out that he was out of business — he had been charged with a felony (apparently unrelated to his business) and wasn’t going to be doing any more quasi-legal work for others. The new problem: the original will was somewhere in the document preparer’s files, and he was in prison.

Son-in-law explained that he had gone to a new document preparer, who had prepared a petition for probate of a copy of the now-missing will. That had cost another $650 up front, and required that the son and son-in-law attend a probate court hearing to explain why the original will was missing. The result: about $2,000 in initial costs (it wasn’t clear if more fees will be incurred), a wait of more than six months to get a simple probate started, and a confusing and frightening hour before a friendly but stern probate judge.

What would have happened if the son-in-law had visited a lawyer instead? It’s hard to say with certainty, but a best guess from the information revealed in court: the total cost would probably have been about $2,500-3,000 plus filing fees, the son and son-in-law would have had authority to sell the house in no more than five days, the lawyer probably would have waited to be paid from proceeds from sale of the house (so no one would have to write up-front checks), and the whole thing would almost certainly have been over in about four months. And that doesn’t consider the possibility that there might have been a summary proceeding available under Arizona law which would have saved a few dollars and several months of time. Oh, and no one would ever have had to appear in court, nervously or otherwise. Oh, and the son and son-in-law would have had the correct forms filled out, and wouldn’t have had to visit the County Bar Association office to get one more form the document preparer missed, consuming another hour of their day and causing more confusion and consternation.

You might think the problem was really just bad luck, that this hapless fellow chose his document preparer badly. After all, few document preparers end up in prison, and there’s nothing that keeps a given lawyer from going bad, either. True enough, though (a) most lawyers practice in groups, so if one lawyer in a firm drops out of sight there’s likely to be someone else to take responsibility, and (b) the document preparers do seem to have a high rate of discipline, with about 50 having their licenses suspended or revoked in the decade since creation of the listing. That looks like about a 10% rate of attrition, which seems higher than for lawyers.

Exhibit Two: In another case involving a document preparer but no lawyer, two women were involved in the life of a 14-year-old girl. The girl’s mother had gone to prison some years ago, and a family friend had adopted the 14-year-old and her four brothers and sisters. Now the 14-year-old had decided she wanted to live with her maternal grandmother, and so had just moved in. Grandmother had consulted a document preparer, and filed an emergency guardianship petition without giving notice to the adoptive mother. Last week’s hearing was the permanent guardianship proceeding, seeking to turn that emergency guardianship into a full guardianship.

The document preparer helpfully came to court with the grandmother, though of course he could not speak for her or even be acknowledged in the probate proceeding. He helped her get her documents together and prompted her about what to tell the Judge. The adoptive mother was also there, telling the Judge that she had no objection to the change in guardianship — she just wanted to make sure that everyone realized that she would no longer be responsible for the girl’s medical bills. The problem with that position: she is still responsible for her daughter’s medical bills — and there was no one available to explain that nuance to her (and the Judge, in his eagerness to get through a complicated and mildly contentious proceeding, didn’t help by reassuring her she was completely off the hook).

Would a lawyer have been more expensive? Almost certainly. Would the 14-year-old have been better served by having someone able to actually give legal advice in this complicated family situation? I’m pretty sure. Would the proceeding have been less stressful, less contentious and more suitable for the 14-year-old (who sat through the court proceeding, watching the tension and drama)? Darn straight.

Exhibit Three: a grandmother was seeking guardianship over her infant grandson. Her daughter lived with her, but had no job and no insurance; grandmother was just trying to get the baby on her own insurance plan. She did the paperwork herself, with no lawyer or document preparer. When she gave notice to the baby’s father, he showed up at the hearing and started talking about his pending petition to get custody, his desire to develop a relationship with the baby, and his lingering uncertainty about paternity. Grandmother got temporary guardianship, but the whole proceeding took a stressful hour and involved plenty of assertions and suspicion.

If grandmother had gotten the advice of a competent lawyer, she might have learned that it’s actually not that hard to get medical insurance for an infant, that she could have worked something out in writing with the putative father (and accelerated the process of figuring out whether he really is the father), and that her guardianship would be of little value (at least in Arizona) if the father’s status is confirmed. Maybe she would not have thought the lawyer’s advice was worth the money.

It was an interesting day. I came away with heart-felt sympathy for litigants who are frightened and confused by a, well, frightening and confusing system. I also appreciate the work of judges who have to explain legal principles to unrepresented litigants (without practicing law, of course) and try to help them navigate the system — all under the watchful eyes of other litigants and (sometimes) their lawyers, waiting for their own cases to be called. Finally, I remain convinced that lawyers have an important place in the legal system, and that even when we are under-appreciated we help people far more than they may be willing to concede.

Decedent’s Family Permitted to Challenge Validity of Marriage

OCTOBER 7, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 38

Though we do not handle divorce cases at Fleming & Curti, PLC, we do find ourselves dealing with divorce, annulment, child support and spousal maintenance issues from time to time. One common question we see involves late-life marriages between a (sometimes) confused senior and a (sometimes, but not always) younger suitor. The questions sometimes come from the senior himself or herself (“I love my fiance, but can my children do anything to challenge this marriage?”) and sometimes from other family members (“Dad wants to marry his caretaker, but we children think she’s just taking advantage of a demented older man for his money. What can we do about it?”).

It is extremely difficult to generalize about these issues, since they are very, very fact dependent. When lawyers say “fact dependent,” incidentally, they usually mean that they anticipate that testimony will be conflicting, that litigants will hear only the part of the testimony that supports their own position, and that the cost, complexity and time spent on litigating the “fact dependent” questions will be substantial, perhaps even prohibitively so.

There is one recurring legal question, though. If either spouse is incompetent (setting aside the definition of that very flexible word for a moment) at the time of a marriage, that marriage may be invalid. But the incompetent spouse is usually not the one challenging the validity of the marriage, and family members who do challenge it are often trying to set aside the marriage after the death of the incompetent spouse. In general terms, only spouses are permitted to litigate divorce, annulment and support questions, and the availability of divorce proceedings usually ends with the death of either spouse. So can family members challenge the validity of a marriage after the death of an allegedly incompetent spouse?

According to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the answer is “yes.” Of course, Wisconsin cases do not carry direct authority in Arizona (or other states), but the rationale may be persuasive — so it’s worth describing the case even for an Arizona audience.

Naomi Latigue (not her real name) had been married for thirty years when her husband Larry died in 2001. They had not had any children together, but Larry had three children from his first marriage. Naomi had signed a will leaving her entire estate to Larry and, if he died before her, to his children — as if they were her own children (though she had never adopted them).

Several years after Larry’s death, Naomi suffered a stroke. It left her deeply affected — for purposes of the later Supreme Court decision, we can assume that her competence was marginal, at best. After what was probably another stroke in 2008, she was admitted to the hospital and then, two weeks later, discharged to a nursing home.

While she was at the nursing home, her live-in companion (of about five years — predating her first stroke) checked her out twice — first to get a marriage license and then, a week later, to get married before a local judge. He did not tell her family members about the plan or the fact of the marriage (they learned about it from her insurance carrier when making claims a few weeks later). Her step-daughter filed a guardianship petition and a temporary guardian of the person and of the estate (what we in Arizona would call a temporary conservator) was appointed. Naomi died a few days later, before the guardianship petition was resolved.

Wisconsin, like most states (perhaps all states) provides that a spouse who marries the decedent after their will is written is entitled to some share of the probate estate. Naomi’s new husband filed a probate petition, alleging that her original will could not be found but that in any event he was entitled to a share, and to appointment as personal representative. Naomi’s step-daughter filed a competing petition, seeking probate of a copy of Naomi’s will and arguing that the marriage was invalid.

The probate court considered arguments of the parties and ultimately ruled that the only way to challenge the validity of a marriage is by filing a petition to have it annulled. By state law (the same rule applies in Arizona) only the affected spouses can prosecute an annulment proceeding, and so there was no mechanism for Naomi’s step-daughter to challenge the validity of the will. Accordingly, Naomi’s husband was appointed as personal representative and awarded a share of her estate.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed that holding, and remanded the case back to the probate court for a determination about whether the marriage was valid. It is true, wrote the Justices, that spouses can only challenge the validity of their marriage by filing an annulment petition, but that does not prevent a probate court from determining whether Naomi was competent to enter into the marriage. If she was not, said the court, the marriage was void from the moment it was entered into, and Naomi’s heirs could make that argument in the probate court. Estate of Laubenheimer, July 16, 2013.

Would the same principles apply in Arizona? Probably. Arizona does have one case with somewhat analogous facts and a similar result. In Estate of Rodriguez, a 2007 Arizona Court of Appeals case, the decedent had referred to herself as married and had signed a will leaving the bulk of her estate to her “husband.” After her death it developed that he had still been married to his first wife at the time of his marriage to the decedent, and so her family challenged the validity of the marriage. He argued that the probate court had no jurisdiction to void the marriage, since the couple had not resided in Arizona at the time of her death; the Court of Appeals, in language similar to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s opinion in Naomi’s case, ruled that the probate proceeding was not an annulment petition but a separate challenge to a void marriage.

Missing Will Presumed Revoked, But Codicil Partially Reinstates It

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
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