Serving elders and families in Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, and Lorain, Ohio Counties

Phone: (216)481-0020
Offices in Euclid and Lakewood
 

Wills

willsIn the common law, a will or testament is a document by which a person (the testator) regulates the rights of others over his or her property or family after death. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy. In the strictest sense, “will” is a general term, while “testament” applies only to dispositions of personal property (this distinction is seldom observed). A will is also used as the instrument in a trust.

Any person over the age of majority can draft their own will. There is no legal requirement that a will be drawn up by a lawyer, although there are pitfalls into which home-made wills can fall. The person who makes a will is not available to explain him or herself, or to correct any technical deficiency or error in expression, when it comes into effect on that person’s death, and so there is little room for mistake. A common error (for example) in the execution of home-made wills in England is to use a beneficiary (typically a spouse or other close family members) as a witness — although this has the effect in law of disinheriting the witness regardless of the provisions of the will.

Some states recognize a holographic will, made out entirely in the testator’s own hand. A minority of states even recognize the validity of nuncupative wills. In England, the formalities of wills are relaxed for soldiers who express their wishes on active service.

A will may not include a requirement that an heir commit an illegal, immoral, or other act against public policy as a condition of receipt. In community property jurisdictions, a will cannot be used to disinherit a surviving spouse, who is entitled to at least a portion of the testator’s estate. In England, a will may disinherit a spouse, but close relations excluded from a will (including but not limited to spouses) may apply to the court for provision to be made for them at the court’s discretion.

It is a good idea that the testator give his executor the power to pay debts, taxes, and administration expenses (probate, etc.). Warren Burger’s will did not contain this, which wound up costing his estate thousands. This is not a consideration in English law, which provides that all such expenses will fall on the estate in any case.

Revocation

Methods and effect

The intentional physical destruction of a will by the testator will revoke it. This could be accomplished by the testator deliberately burning or tearing the physical document itself, or even by striking out the signature. Most jurisdictions allow partial revocation if only part of the text or a particular provision is crossed out. Other jurisdictions will either ignore the attempt or hold that the entire will was actually revoked. A testator may also be able to revoke by the physical act of another (as would be necessary if he is physically incapacitated), if this is done in his presence and in the presence of witnesses. Some jurisdictions may presume that a will has been destroyed if it had been last seen in the possession of the testator but is found mutilated or cannot be found after his death.

A will may also be revoked by the execution of a new will. Most wills contain stock language that expressly revokes any wills that came before them, however, because normally a court will still attempt to read the wills together to the extent they are consistent.

In some jurisdictions, the complete revocation of a will automatically revives the next most recent will, while others hold that revocation leaves the testator with no will so that his heirs will instead inherit by intestate succession.

In England and Wales, marriage will automatically revoke a will as it is presumed that upon marriage, a testator will want to review the will. A statement in a will that it is made in contemplation of forthcoming marriage to a named person will override this. Divorce, conversely, will not revoke a will, but will have the effect that the former spouse is treated as if they had died before the testator and so will not benefit.

Where a will has been accidentally destroyed, on evidence that this is the case, a copy will or draft will may be admitted to probate.

Dependent relative revocation

Many jurisdictions exercise an equitable doctrine known as dependent relative revocation. Under this doctrine, courts may disregard a revocation that was based on a mistake of law on the part of the testator as to the effect of the revocation. For example, if a testator mistakenly believes that an earlier will can be revived by the revocation of a later will, the court will ignore the later revocation if the later will comes closer to fulfilling the testator’s intent than not having a will at all. The doctrine also applies when a testator executes a second, or new, will and revokes his old will under the (mistaken) belief that the new will would be valid. However, for some reason the new will is not valid and a court may apply the doctrine to reinstate and probate the old will, as the court holds that the testator would prefer the old will to intestate succession.

Before applying the doctrine, courts may require (with rare exceptions) that there have been an alternative plan of disposition of the property. That is, after revoking the prior will, the testator could have made an alternative plan of disposition. Such plan would show that the testator intended the revocation to result in the property going elsewhere, rather than just being a revoked disposition. Secondly, courts require either that the testator have recited his mistake in the terms of the revoking instrument, or that the mistake be established by clear and convincing evidence. For example, when the testator made the original revocation, he must have erroneously noted that he was revoking the gift “because the intended recipient has died” or “because I will enact a new will tomorrow.”

Election under the will

Also referred to as “electing to take against the will.” In the United States, many states have probate statutes which permit the surviving spouse of the decedent to choose to receive a particular share of deceased spouse’s estate in lieu of receiving the specified share left to him or her under the deceased spouse’s will. As a simple example, under Iowa law (see Code of Iowa Section 633.238 (2005)), the deceased spouse leaves a will which expressly gifts the marital home to someone other than the surviving spouse. The surviving spouse may elect, contrary to the intent of the will, to live in the home for the remainder of her lifetime. This is called a “life estate” and terminates immediately upon the surviving spouse’s death.

The historical and social policy purposes of such statutes are to assure that the surviving spouse receives a statutorily set minimum amount of property from the decedent. Historically, these statutes were enacted to prevent the deceased spouse from leaving the survivor destitute, thereby shifting the burden of care to the social welfare system.
<p”>Linda Rich is a licensed attorney practicing in the greater Cleveland area with law offices in Euclid and Lakewood. Contact her for assistance with your Will, Living Will or other elder law related issues.