Following the wishes set forth in the last will and testament of a decedent can be troubling for surviving heirs when multiple documents are found after death. This trouble is further compounded when various documents conflict with each other.
In the recent case of In re: Estate of Joan Uhl Pierce, the decedent (the person who died) wrote her will in 2007, which was formally witnessed and executed. In the 2007 will, Ms. Pierce gave all her assets to her children, and if her children didn’t survive her, then to she gave her assets to her grandchildren. In 2010, Ms. Pierce amended her will via a holographic codicil (i.e. a handwritten amendment, signed, but not witnessed). In her 2010 amendment, she noted that all her children except for one had moved out of state and the remaining child, became her caregiver. As such, Ms. Pierce additionally wanted to give her home to her caregiving child. However, the caregiving child died before Ms. Pierce.
In 2013, a mere handful of days before Ms. Pierce passed away, she received and filled out a set of documents from an attorney titled “Confidential Estate Planning Questionnaire”. In the questionnaire, Ms. Pierce made no mention of her grandchildren receiving any of her assets, which was contrary to the 2007 will and 2010 amendment. In other words, if the 2013 estate planning questionnaire was deemed yet another holographic will, then the grandchildren of the deceased caregiving son would not take anything under the 2013 document. However, under the 2007 will and 2010 amendment, the grandchildren would receive their father’s proportionate share of the estate plus the house.
The Court ultimately decided that the 2013 estate planning questionnaire did not evidence Ms. Pierce’s final intent. Among other reasons, the document noted that it was to be followed by a formal meeting with the attorney and that it was merely the beginning of the planning process, not the conclusion. Thus, the 2007 will and 2010 amendment controlled.
A lesson here is that as long as you’re alive, you’re free to change your post-death wishes. However, if you do so, you must follow the legal formalities and your testamentary intent must be clearly evidenced within the documents. In this case, the testimony given at trial showed that Ms. Pierce no longer wanted her one set of grandchildren to inherit her property, however, her failure to formally evidence these wishes defeated her plan and resulted in litigation.