Insuring Your Final Wishes Through Proper Estate Planning

The consequences of will disputes range from the goals of the individual who created the will being greatly frustrated to failing completely, which is a shame because a will represents a person taking the time and energy to memorialize his or her last wishes in a testamentary instrument. However, poor estate planning combined with contentious litigation among family members can foil the best intentions of a testator.

Consider, for example, In re Harless, a case recently decided by the Supreme Court of Montana. Catherine Harless, the testator in this case, was the sister of Linda Hyde and the mother of Kelli Martin and Heather Gordon. In May 2002, Catherine executed a will whereby she devised $1.00 to each of her two daughters and $1.00 to each of her two grandchildren. At the same time, Harless expressly declared that these four would not be allowed to have anything else under her will, but then devised all of her property-both real and personal-to her sister Linda or, alternatively, to Linda’s sons, Ted and Todd Holverson.

Following a contract dispute between Catherine Harless and Ted Holverson, which resulted in legal action in July 2008, Catherine wrote a letter to Linda declaring that Harless no longer wanted to be involved in the lives of Hyde’s family, including Ted and Todd. Catherine even went so far as to testify during a deposition that her 2002 will was “no longer valid” and was “a joke.”

Harless passed away in October 2010, but never executed any other will and, apart from her letter to Linda and her deposition testimony, never took any action to revoke the 2002 will. Soon after, Kelli petitioned Montana’s Fifth Judicial District Court to declare that Harless died intestate, meaning that the 2002 will was invalid and that Kelli would take under the will as an intestate heir, i.e., an heir-at-law. In February 2013, the District Court concluded that the 2002 will was not invalidated by Catherine Harless’s failure to sign the will (she had printed her name in block letters, rather than in cursive script). The District Court further noted that Catherine’s actions-suing her nephew, writing the letter to Linda in 2008, and her deposition testimony-constituted a valid revocation of the will.

The Supreme Court of Montana first noted that, under Montana statutes, a will can still be treated as a will even if it does not strictly meet the statutory requirements, so long as the proponent of the document establishes by “clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document” to be her will. With regard to Catherine’s 2002 will, both the notary and one of the witnesses to the will testified that they watched Catherine sign the document in block print. Furthermore, because Harless acknowledged the document as her will in her deposition testimony, the Supreme Court of Montana was satisfied that Harless intended the 2002 will to be her will under the laws of Montana. The court then succinctly rejected the argument that Harless had revoked her will by suing her nephew and writing Linda the letter denouncing their relationship, noting that there are very limited and specific statutory means for revoking a will. Due to the fact that Harless did not demonstrate her intent to revoke her will by “burning, tearing, canceling, obliterating, marking on, or destroying the will or any part of it,” the will had not been properly revoked by Catherine. As a result, the 2002 was held to be valid, and Ted and Todd stood to inherit the entire estate.

In conclusion, Catherine Harless clearly did not want her daughters or her grandchildren to inherit her estate, but also did not want her sister or her nephews to inherit either. Yet, because Harless never revoked her will or amended it to reflect her new, antagonistic sentiments toward her nephews, her wishes went unfulfilled and her family incurred substantial legal bills and emotional turmoil in reaching this outcome.

Proper estate planning and guidance could have avoided this troubling situation. The legal team at Chepenik Trushin LLP is ready, willing, and able to work with you to ensure that your estate plan is structured in accordance with your personal goals, whatever those may be, and is in full compliance with the applicable state statutes, so that it will withstand any potential challenges. Please do not hesitate to contact us for a consultation.