Probate of Wills in New York requires the compliance with many provisions that are part of the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law ("EPTL") and the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act ("SCPA").
First and foremost, EPTL Section 3-2.1 entitled "Execution and attestation of wills; formal requirements "sets forth the statutory mandates that must be followed for a Will to be validly signed. The statute sets out a number of requirements such as: (i) the Will must be signed at the end by the testator (3-2.1(a)(1); (ii) there needs to be "at least two attesting witnesses" (3-2.1(a)(c)(4) ); and (iii) the signature of the testator must be made in the presence of or acknowledged to the witnesses (3-2.1(a)(c)(2).
The formal requirements of the statute are quite extensive and variations or questions that may occur regarding compliance with these formalities often result in controversy and litigation. For example, what happens if all the steps are taken to prepare and execute a Last Will but the original of the Will cannot be located after the testator's death. SCPA 1407 entitled "Proof of lost or destroyed will", provides the process by which a Will can be admitted to probate under such circumstances.
In order for the probate process to be completed, the Court requires that the Attesting Witnesses provide testimony confirming that the signing of the Last Will complied with the formalities of law. This testimony can be live or, as is most often done, by sworn affidavit. However, what happens when one or more of the witnesses are deceased or cannot be located when the Will is being probated. SCPA 1406 entitled "Proof of will by affidavit of attesting witness out of court", allows the witnesses affidavit to be used to establish the validity of the Will. This affidavit is usually made when the Will is signed and is known as a "self-proving" affidavit.
It is a common misconception that preparing and signing a Last Will is a relatively simple matter. As appears from the brief discussion herein and other posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, failure to comply with the statutory rules for Wills can result in battles in the Manhattan Surrogate's Court, or other Surrogate's Courts throughout the State. The decedent's intentions regarding an estate plan can be disrupted or destroyed. The rules and procedures, although complex and sometimes appearing to be archaic, are meant to provide certainty as to a decedent's last wishes and prevent fraud and deception.
A recent case in the New York State Supreme Court, Onondoga County, Castor v. Pulaski, decided by the Honorable Anthony J. Paris on December 14, 2011, shows why the many safeguards to the probate process are necessary. Castor is an action to recover damages for fraud engaged in by individuals who attempted to defraud the Surrogate's Court by filing and attesting to the validity of a fake Will. The plaintiff, who was the decedent's son, actually withdrew his objections to the Will in view of the witness affidavits which were, unbeknownst to him at the time, false.
The Court granted compensatory and punative damages against the defendants and noted in its decision: "Based on Defendants' track record, their testimony is totally incredible except for those portions wherein they admit that they willingly and voluntarily falsely acknowledged Mr. Castor's execution of his Last Will and Testament when, in fact, they did not so witness his signature and he did not request them to sign as witnesses. They also admit to their subsequent execution of the Attesting Witness Affidavits on November 23, 2005, knowing that the information contained in said Affidavits was not true."
The preparation, execution and probate of Wills, as well as proper estate administration, is complicated and involves serious consequences. Due diligence by all individuals and family members, as well as professional guidance from estate and probate attorneys, is essential.