Reprise: Probating a Lost Will or a Copy

May 29, 2014 § 2 Comments

Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today …

LOST WILLS

January 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Does it ever happen to you that an heir shows up in your office and says something to the effect that “Mom says you kept the original of dad’s will. All we have is this [dogeared, coffee-stained, footprinted] copy,” and hands you a bedraggled handful of papyrus?  Well, if it hasn’t, it will.

Of course, you did not retain the original [for you younger attorneys: NEVER keep the original of your client’s will]. So what will you do with this forlorn sheaf? 

You will probate it. Yes, probate it.  But it’s only a copy, you say; and the original will is required to be produced (See, MCA § 91-7-5, -7 and -31).  True.  But it is possible to probate a lost or destroyed will.

In the case of Estate of Mitchell, 623 So.2d 274, 275 (Miss. 1993), the court said:   

The law regarding admission into probate of a lost will is discussed at length in Warren v. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. 669, 184 So. 806 (1938). Sidney’s Estate sets forth the elements necessary to probate a copy of a lost will are: (1) the proof of the existence of the will; (2) evidence of its loss or destruction; and (3) proof of its contents. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 675-76, 184 So. at 807. A fourth element has been added: (4) that the testator did not destroy the will with the intent to revoke it. Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983). This last element, which is most central to this case, arose from the theory that when a will cannot be found following the death of a testator and it can be shown that the testator was the last person in possession of the will, there arises a rebuttable presumption of revocation.

Where a will which cannot be found following the death of the testator is shown to have been in his possession when last seen, the presumption is, in the absence of other evidence, that he destroyed it animo revocandi … 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 551.  Adams v. Davis, 233 Miss. 228, 237, 102 So.2d 190, 193 (1958); Phinizee v. Alexander, 210 Miss. 196, 200, 49 So.2d 250, 252 (1950); Horner, Probate Prac. & Est. § 79 (4th ed.). This presumption extends to all duplicate copies, even executed duplicates. Adams, 233 Miss. at 237, 102 So.2d at 194; Phinizee, 210 Miss. at 199, 49 So.2d at 252; Horner § 79.

The proponent of the will must prove each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence. See Estate of Leggett v. Smith, 584 So.2d 400, 403 (Miss.1991); Estate of Willis v. Willis, 207 So.2d 348, 349 (Miss.1968); Adams, 233 Miss. at 237-38, 102 So.2d at 194. (“The intent to revoke must appear clearly and unequivocally.” Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 676, 184 So. at 807. “The policy of the law requires such contents to be established by the clearest, most convincing and satisfactory proof.” Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983).

Your petition will have to recite on personal knowledge of the petitioner, or supported by affidavits on personal knowledge, all four of the required factors. 

You should probate the lost or destroyed will in solemn form.  To do otherwise gives an unfair advantage to the proponent of the missing document.  Probate in solemn form also seals off the protests of other interested parties and, as a practical matter, takes you directly to the hearing with notice that you will likely wind up in anyway.   

At hearing, you will need to prove your four elements by clear and convincing evidence. 

  • Proving the existence of the will is not usually much of a problem.  You will have that copy, or, if no copy is available, someone with personal knowledge can testify that the will did exist.  MRE 1001-1008 would appear to govern the issue.  As Rule 1008 states, the issue is for the trier of fact to determine.
  • Loss of the will can be proven by testimony that the decedent kept his or her papers in a particular place and that an exhaustive search has not turned it up, or that the cabinet where the will was kept was destroyed by fire, or that it was in a repository that has now vanished. 
  • The “Dead Man’s Statute” has been supplanted by MRE 803(3), so proof of its contents should not be a major obstacle, so long as there is a witness with personal knowledge.
  • And the same hearsay exception would apply to the testator’s destruction or intended revocation.      

An interesting wrinkle appears in an ancient case, Vining v. Hall, 40 Miss. 83 (Miss. Err. & App. 1866), that is still good law.  In Vining, there was conflicting and inconclusive testimony about the contents of the lost or destroyed will, but no disagreement that it included a revocation clause expressly revoking all prior wills.  The court held that the revocation clause was effective despite the fact that the dispositive terms of the will could not be determined.  See, Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, Third Ed., § 7.15.

§ 2 Responses to Reprise: Probating a Lost Will or a Copy

  • Stephen Bailey says:

    Judge, an interesting case regarding lost wills is Estate of Tallant, 644 So.2d 1189 (Miss. 1994). This case really undermined the long standing proposition that a lost will last seen in the decedent’s possession was subject to the presumption that the will was destroyed with the intent to revoke the will. Prior to Tallant, this presumption was almost impossible to overcome. The ruling in Tallant was recently used against me in a case where I represented the contestant in a lost will case. Now if a decedent wishes to revoke his will, he must go to his lawyer and tell them about his intent to revoke, or to some other neutral third party. It would be even better if they revoked the will with multiple witnesses to the revocation. Quietly revoking your will and choosing to die intestate is no longer an option if someone has a copy of your will to probate.

    • Larry says:

      Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I am not familiar with the Tallant case. After I read it, I may have to do a post on it.

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