SEPTEMBER 20, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 29
There is a lot of mythology, misunderstanding and just plain confusion about wills and probate. Sometimes the reported cases don’t help clarify what makes a will valid, when it is subject to challenge or even what might be a will.
The general rule is clear, and ancient. The Parliament of England adopted the Statute of Wills in 1540, and a version of its requirements can still be found in every U.S. state. One of the most important principles from the Statute of Wills: a valid will must be in writing, and must be signed by two witnesses. That is still the law in most common law jurisdictions, and it is certainly the law in Arizona.
But wait. Perhaps you have heard about “holographic” wills; they do not have to be witnessed at all. The basic rule in states which permit holographic wills (Arizona is one) is that the material provisions must be in the handwriting of the person, and signed. You can see those rules might amount to a lawyer’s field day — what are “material provisions,” and how are courts supposed to interpret the incomplete or even contradictory provisions of a handwritten document?
Then there are “nuncupative” wills. They are not permitted in Arizona at all, but some states allow them. They are oral statements of the wishes of someone on their deathbed. In states recognizing nuncupative wills, they may be limited to items of personal property like jewelry, small amounts of cash or even items with no economic value. You might (depending on which state you are living — and dying — in) be able to say “I want my dad’s pocket watch to go to Harry” but not “I want Harry to have my $100,000 T-Bill.”
The Uniform Probate Code, promulgated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) and adopted in 19 states (including Arizona) provides some new ways to let people express their wishes — and, arguably, to increase legal fees in some cases. Under recent amendments to the Uniform act, a will that is unsigned or not signed properly could still be a valid document if it can be shown by clear and convincing evidence that the individual intended it to be treated as a will. We should stop a moment to point out that although Arizona adopted the Uniform Probate Code back in 1973, the more recent revisions have not been adopted. Arizona still requires all wills (except holographic wills) to be witnessed by two people.
When might the new section of the Uniform Probate Code be useful? How about the sad case of Louise Macool, who died in New Jersey in 2008?
Mrs. Macool’s husband of forty years had died just a month before she made an appointment to see her long-time lawyer. She brought along a handwritten note to tell the lawyer what she wanted. Her old will left everything to her late husband’s seven children equally (she had no children of her own, but had helped raise his children). Her note said, cryptically, “get the same as the family Macool gets — Niece — Mary Rescigno” and some other changes she wanted to discuss.
Mrs. Macool explained the note to her lawyer. She wanted to add her niece, Mary Rescigno, to her will, along with another niece. While she was still in his office, the lawyer picked up his dictation equipment and dictated a will for her review and signature. Then she left the office to go to lunch; she would make an appointment to review the will after her attorney’s staff had transcribed it and he had a chance to review it for accuracy.
Sadly, Mrs. Macool never saw the draft will. Within the hour after she left her lawyer’s office she died.
The lawyer’s staff prepared the draft will, apparently not knowing of Mrs. Macool’s death. Relying on the Uniform Probate Code language, Ms. Rescigno then asked the probate court to admit the unsigned document as Mrs. Macool’s last will.
The probate court heard a day of testimony and argument, then declined to admit the draft document as a will. The probate judge agreed that Mrs. Macool’s intent in meeting with the lawyer was to change her will to include Ms. Rescigno, but decided that some sort of signature was required on the document.
The New Jersey appellate court agreed with the result, but not the reasoning. Requiring a signature on the document would make it essentially a duplication of the holographic will provisions, ruled the appellate judges. Mrs. Macool’s draft will could be admitted to probate if she had had a chance to review it and indicate that it reflected her wishes. Her handwritten notes, meanwhile, did not amount to a holographic will — they would need her signature.
The trial judge had declined to admit the draft document to probate as Mrs. Macool’s will, but he had agreed that Ms. Rescigno’s lawyer should be paid from Mrs. Macool’s estate. New Jersey’s probate rules expressly authorize payment of attorney’s fees for someone who “had reasonable cause” for even a failed contest. Ms. Rescigno’s lawyers had submitted bills totaling $34,433; the probate judge had cited his personal “policy reasons” in reducing the fee by about 15%.
Even though her lawyers had been unsuccessful the appellate court approved of the payment to Ms. Rescigno’s counsel. In fact, they reversed the probate judge’s reduction of the claimed fees. According to the appellate court, there was no indication that the hourly rates were unreasonable our out of line with prevailing rates, or that the claimed hours were not actually worked. In Re Probate of Alleged Will of Macool, September 16, 2010.