The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in earlier posts that a New York Last Will must comply with statutory requirements. Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 3-2.1 entitled "Execution and attestation of wills; formal requirements" provides many of the rules regarding the signing and form of a Will.
For example, the statute provides that all Wills must be in writing and signed at the end of the document. Also, paragraph (a)(1)(B) states that anything that is added above a testator's signature after a Will is executed is not to be given any effect. Paragraph (a)(4) requires that there shall be at least two (2) witnesses to the Will and paragraph (a)(3) sets forth that the testator must declare to the witnesses that the paper being signed is his Will.
While this statute and the many court cases interpreting the legal requirements of a Will and its execution may seem very formalistic, the underlying rationale is to insure that a testator's last wishes and intentions are reflected in a paper that has a high probability of validity. The strict requirements surrounding the form and signing of Last Wills protect both the interests of the testator and the beneficiaries named in the document.
The legal requirements, however, do not prevent the many estate litigation controversies that frequently occur. Will contests are fairly common. In many of these contested Will cases, even though the document may appear to have been properly executed with sufficient witnesses, an objectant may claim that the testator did not have the capacity to make a valid Will, or that the testator was unduly influenced or coerced into signing the Will. These matters are typically dealt with in probate proceedings in the New York Surrogate's Courts. Estate attorneys generally represent the parties involved such as the person petitioning for probate who is usually the named executor and the potential or actual Will objectants.
The formality of a written document that is witnessed by at least two people creates certainty for the disposition of assets of a decedent. An interesting case was recently reported by Eric Frazier in the Charlotte Observer on October 22, 2013. In an article entitled "Son of late developer Henry Faison suing his firm over Will", it was reported that Henry Faison, a Charlotte, North Carolina real estate developer, had died just before he was to sign a new Will. Mr. Faison's new estate plan would have left most of his multi-million dollar estate to a charitable foundation instead of to his company. The decedent's two sons commenced a lawsuit to try and enforce the terms of the new Will which was not signed before Mr. Faison's demise.
Mr. Faison's situation is not uncommon. However, despite circumstances that may indicate that Mr. Faison was intending to change his estate plan, since there is no actual signed and witnessed paper to rely on, it can only be speculated as to whether the decedent may have had a last minute change of heart as to the disposition of his estate. It will be interesting to see how the Courts decide this case and whether any validity is given to an unsigned document.
Having a duly executed Will, Living Will, Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney is important to preserve the creator's intentions and eliminate any guesswork and, ultimately, estate settlement litigation, that might ensue in the absence of such documents.