Estate planning is an important process that allows individuals to ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes after they pass away. However, even with careful planning, mistakes can happen, and documents may not be executed exactly as intended.
In re Estate of Hallowell, 113 N.Y.S.3d 554 (App. Div. 2020) address the question of whether an unsigned will may be admitted to probate. The case is of particular interest because it demonstrates how New York courts may be willing to recognize informal wills that do not strictly comply with the requirements set forth in the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL).
The decedent, Margaret Hallowell, passed away on September 11, 2016, leaving behind a substantial estate. Prior to her death, Ms. Hallowell had created a handwritten document in which she expressed her wishes regarding the distribution of her assets. The document, which was found in Ms. Hallowell’s apartment after her death, was unsigned and unwitnessed. However, the document was clearly intended to function as Ms. Hallowell’s will.
The document directed that Ms. Hallowell’s assets be distributed among various individuals, including family members, friends, and charitable organizations. The document also named an executor and identified certain personal property that was to be distributed in accordance with Ms. Hallowell’s wishes.
The executor of Ms. Hallowell’s estate sought to admit the document to probate, arguing that it represented Ms. Hallowell’s testamentary intent. The executor acknowledged that the document did not strictly comply with the formal requirements of the EPTL, but argued that it should be admitted to probate nonetheless.
Under New York law, a will must be in writing and signed at the end by the testator, or by some other person in the testator’s presence and at the testator’s direction. The will must also be witnessed by at least two individuals who are not beneficiaries under the will.
The document created by Ms. Hallowell did not strictly comply with these requirements. It was not signed, nor was it witnessed by any individuals. However, the court found that the document was nevertheless admissible to probate.
The court relied on the doctrine of substantial compliance, which provides that a document that does not strictly comply with the formal requirements of the EPTL may nevertheless be admitted to probate if it can be shown that the document represents the testator’s intent and was executed with testamentary formalities that are substantially in compliance with the statute.
The court found that the document created by Ms. Hallowell satisfied the requirements of the doctrine of substantial compliance. The court noted that the document was clearly intended to function as Ms. Hallowell’s will, and that it identified the individuals who were to receive her assets and the executor who was to administer her estate. The court also noted that the document was handwritten by Ms. Hallowell, which indicated that she had taken steps to create a testamentary document.
Based on these factors, the court concluded that the document created by Ms. Hallowell represented her testamentary intent and was admissible to probate.
In re Estate of Hallowell is a significant legal decision that highlights the importance of complying with New York’s statutory requirements for creating a valid will. However, the doctrine of substantial compliance offers some flexibility in the admission of nonconforming wills, and unsigned wills may be admitted to probate under certain circumstances. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that the application of the doctrine of substantial compliance can be complex and fact-specific, and each case will be evaluated on its own merits.
Given the intricacies and potential challenges of navigating the legal process surrounding will contests and estate disputes, it is crucial to consult with an experienced New York will contest lawyer who can provide guidance, advice, and representation throughout the legal process. They can also help you evaluate the strength of your case, identify potential legal issues or challenges, and develop a sound legal strategy to protect your interests and achieve a favorable outcome.