Unfortunate Death of Real Estate Developer Can Teach Lessons for the Future

An interesting case recently surfaced involving the $200 million estate of a North Carolina real estate developer Henry Faison. Mr. Faison created a will devising his estate in 2000, but decided to make changes last year. Unexpectedly, Mr. Faison passed away in his office just before signing the second will. As should be expected, multiple parties have an interest in Mr. Faison’s large estate, and a lawsuit claiming unjust enrichment on the part of the 2000 will’s primary beneficiary was filed in the courts to determine which of the two wills should control distributions of the estate’s assets. This begs the questions of what the probable result of this lawsuit would be were it decided in Florida, and what can one do to avoid a similar situation?

First, it is clear that on its face that Mr. Faison’s second will would not be valid in Florida. To be valid, a will must be signed by the principal in the presence of two subscribing witnesses, one of whom is neither the spouse, nor a blood relative, of the principal. The only exception to this rule is where the principal is physically unable to sign the will. In such a situation, one of the witnesses must transcribe the principal’s signature in the principal’s presence and at the principal’s direction. Thus, because of Mr. Faison’s failure to execute his will before he passed, it would not be considered valid and the 2000 will would control the devise of his estate in Florida.

However, the plaintiffs’ claims rest on a theory of unjust enrichment, that is, that the beneficiary of the 2000 will, Mr. Faison’s company, had received benefits from an agreement implemented as a result of the second will and, therefore, should not be able to receive both those benefits along with the benefits from the 2000 will. In Florida, “An action for ‘unjust enrichment’ exists to prevent the wrongful retention of a benefit, or the retention of money or property of another, in violation of good conscience and fundamental principles of justice or equity.” The elements of the claim are as follows: “(1) the plaintiff has conferred a benefit on the defendant; (2) the defendant has knowledge of the benefit; (3) the defendant has accepted or retained the benefit conferred; and (4) the circumstances are such that it would be inequitable for the defendant to retain the benefit without paying fair value for it.”

Therefore, if the plaintiffs’, who represent Mr. Faison’s estate, are able to show that Mr. Faison’s company did receive benefits from the estate as a result of the possible existence of the second will, their claim may stand a chance under the laws of Florida. This may, however, prove difficult, as Faison and his company undoubtedly had numerous business dealings and the plaintiffs will need to show that the benefits claimed are a direct result of the second will and not some other business transaction between the parties. Needless to say, this would be an interesting dispute in Florida (as it probably will be in North Carolina) and it is not clear who will prevail in North Carolina or who would prevail in Florida.

Estate planning professionals often say that a lot of estate problems could have been solved if they were anticipated prior to the testator’s death. Here, it may be disingenuous to suggest that Mr. Faison, who by all accounts was the picture of health, should have anticipated his sudden death. But perhaps these unfortunate circumstances can inspire the rest of us to ensure that we complete all of the formalities of executing our estate plan as soon as possible after endeavoring to create that plan. This could help to avoid future headaches and hurdles for our estates after our death. If you or someone you know needs guidance or assistance with estate planning or administration, please do not hesitate to contact the experienced legal team at Chepenik Trushin, LLP.