Unsigned Wills

What happens when an unsigned will is found after the writer’s death?

Church Law and Tax 1994-09-01 Recent Developments

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

Key point: An unsigned copy of a will leaving an entire estate to a church may be admitted to probate if the original cannot be found and the church can overcome the presumption that the deceased revoked the will prior to death.

What happens when a church member dies and an unsigned will is found leaving his entire estate to two churches? Do the churches have any right to the estate, or must it pass to surviving relatives? That was the issue addressed by an Iowa court in a recent case. A church member executed wills in 1959, 1973, 1974, 1983, and 1986. His final will, in 1986, left his entire estate to two churches with which he had been associated throughout his life. Following his death in 1990, the only will that could be found was an unsigned copy of the 1986 will in his safety deposit box. The church member was not survived by his wife, and he had no children. Various nephews and nieces claimed that the unsigned will could not be admitted to probate, and that the entire estate should pass to them. The court acknowledged that when only an unsigned will is found a presumption arises that the deceased revoked the will prior to death. However, it pointed out that this presumption can be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that the deceased did not destroy the will with an intent to revoke it. The court concluded that two churches produced sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that the will had been revoked. This evidence included the following: (1) the deceased told several people in the years preceding his death that he did not like his relatives and they would not receive any portion of his estate; (2) the deceased had little if any contact over the years with any of his relatives; (3) the deceased had close and meaningful associations with the two churches (he and his wife had been married in one, and they attended both for many years); (4) in none of the deceased’s prior wills did he leave any portion of his estate to his relatives; (5) there was no direct evidence that the deceased in fact destroyed his original 1986 will or ever expressed a desire to revoke it; and (6) the deceased never spoke to his attorney about revoking the 1986 will. The court also noted that if the deceased had revoked his 1986 will he either would have destroyed the unsigned copy or not left it with his other valuables in a safety deposit box. Matter of Estate of Wiarda, 508 N.W.2d 740 (Iowa App. 1993).

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