Some Random Thoughts on Phelps

February 1, 2016 § 4 Comments

Last week we talked about the COA’s decision in a will contest, and how the decision lays out the analysis that is required in a testamentary capacity/undue influence case.

As promised here are a few reflections on the case:

  • When parties ask you to represent them in a will contest, it’s important to understand how the burden of proof operates. As was the case here, it was not enough to establish that a confidential relationship existed. There must be much more. And you can expect the other side to counter with strong proof in most cases.
  • Also, physical frailty, illness, and even inability to manage one’s own business, do not establish testamentary incapacity as long as the testator understands the nature and effect of making a will, the natural objects or persons to receive his or her bounty and their relationship to him or her, and is able to determine how to dispose of his or her estate.
  • This case also illustrates how critically important it is for the subscribing witness to understand his or her role. The subscribing witness is the first-line observer of the testator’s capacity.
  • Cordell, the attorney, deserves posthumous kudos for his handling of Dorothy’s execution of the will. He allowed only her and the other subscribing witness into the room, satisfied himself that Dorothy had testamentary capacity, and that there was no undue influence.
  • Also, Dorothy sought independent advice from Cordell, who was unconnected with Henry III. This helped overcome a finding of undue influence.
  • Just because a confidential relationship exists, there is not necessarily undue influence. And even if there is a presumption of undue influence, it can be overcome by clear and convincing evidence of the factors set out in the Grantham case.

You should treat the execution of a will in your office with some solemnity and care. It is, after all, a serious occasion, oftentimes coming after long and careful deliberation by the testator. No one but the subscribing witnesses and testator should be present. Ask questions that will help you and the witnesses determine testamentary capacity: does she know her assets and their worth; does she know who her natural heirs are and how this will affect not only them but also her prior wills; how dependent is she in handling her affairs; has anyone pressured her to make this disposition? And so on. You should admonish the subscribing witnesses not to sign unless they are satisfied that the testator has capacity and is acting freely and voluntarily. You might want to make a few notes to refresh later recollection: who brought her to your office; time of day; who was present in the room when the will was signed, etc. You might even make a checklist to help you memory later. In my experience, testimony from the law office where the will was signed is often the deciding factor.

THE ROLE OF THE SUBSCRIBING WITNESS

December 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

In the MSSC decision in Estate of Holmes, decided November 29, 2012, there was a proceeding for solemn probate. The two subscribing witnesses were called to testify, and their testimony established that: they did not know they were witnessing a will; they that the testator did not request that they witness a will; and that they did not satisfy themselves that the testator was of sound and disposing mind when she executed the will. The MSSC reversed the chamncellor’s decision admitting the will, holding that the subscribing witnesses did not satisfy the requirement of “attesting” witnesses.

Justice Dickinson’s opinion states, beginning at ¶ 10:

Mississippi law empowers “[e]very person eighteen (18) years of age or older, being of sound and disposing mind” to make a will which, if not “wholly written and subscribed” by the testator, must be “attested by two (2) or more credible witnesses in the presence of the testator or testatrix [MCA 91-5-1]. The attesting witnesses must meet four requirements: First, the testator must request them to attest the will [Green v. Pearson, 145 Miss. 23, 110 So. 862, 864 (1927)]; second, they must see the testator sign the will [Matter of Jefferson’s Will, 349 So.3d 1032, 1036 (Miss. 1977)]; third, they must know that the document is the testator’s last will and testament [Estate of Griffith v. Griffith, 20 So.2d 1190, 1194 (Miss. 2010)]; and finally, they must satisfy themselves that the testator is of sound and disposing mind and capable of making a will [Matter of Jefferson’s Will, Id.].

¶11. These formalities associated with attesting a will are important, not only as safeguards against fraud by substitution of a different will than the one signed by the testator, but also to make sure a person executing a will is of sound and disposing mind.

And this at ¶ 14: “One may not witness a will in ignorance.”

I would say that most of us who have ever prepared simple wills as a routine matter for clients have not paid heed to the exacting requirements that are imposed on subscribing witnesses by operation of the case law in this area. But, as this case illustrates, it is worth re-examining how you select and instruct your subscribing/attesting witnesses as to their duties, and, more importantly, how you document what it is that they are witnessing. By that latter point, I mean to suggest that you might want to scrutinize that subscribing witness affidavit form that is fossilized in your comouter and which you have been using for more than 35 years, to see whether it is stout enough to pass muster in a trial of this sort, and whether it would help jog the memory of the witness to the extent that the witness’s testimony would be helpful.

Justice Pierce’s dissent raises some good points about the prudence of requiring witnesses, some of whom performed their duties decades before, to have almost perfect recall of the events surrounding the subscription of the document. I know that I have been asked several times to recall events surrounding similar transactions, and I have found my memory murkily general and unhelpful, at best. Imagine a lay person who is not familiar with all of these legalities and their import being asked similar questions.

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