Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Wills and Legal Formalities
When drafting a will, consult with an attorney to ensure the document's validity.

Key point Wills and other testamentary documents must be drafted and executed in compliance with applicable law to be legally enforceable.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a church member's will, that left the bulk of her estate to her church, was valid even though the witnesses' names were printed without signatures. An elderly church member ("Cora") executed a will naming her church as her primary beneficiary. According to the terms of the will, the church received Cora's home and several substantial bank accounts. The will was executed in the presence of a notary public who printed the names of three witnesses, without signatures, below Cora's signature. Attached to the will was a "self-proving affidavit," which was signed by a notary public and all three witnesses, and which affirmed that Cora signed the will in the presence of the witnesses as her free and voluntary act.

Following Cora's death, the church submitted her will for probate. However, a court clerk refused to admit the will on the ground that it was not properly witnessed "since where signatures of the witnesses should be, the names of the witnesses are printed." Cora's nearest relatives also opposed the admission of the will to probate. One of these relatives was the sole "residuary beneficiary" under the will who would receive Cora's estate in the event that the will was rejected for probate.

A trial court rejected the will for probate on the basis of the following statute: "No will shall be valid unless it be in writing and signed by the testator … and moreover … the signature shall be made or the will acknowledged by him in the presence of at least two competent witnesses, present at the same time; and such witnesses shall subscribe the will in the presence of the testator, but no form of attestation shall be necessary." According to the trial court, the witnesses did not "subscribe the will in the presence of the testator" because they failed to sign the will below Nora's signature. Their printed names without signatures were insufficient.

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