When a will isn’t worth the paper it’s written on

Finders probate genealogists would always advise you to make a will and ensure that it is up to date and correctly executed.  An error, no matter how small, can invalidate the will leading to intestacy and the named heirs losing out on their inheritance. When making a will it is important to ensure that it has been correctly signed and witnessed, it is an important detail that if incorrectly executed can lead to the courts.A couple made mirror wills but when the wills were executed they each, mistakenly, signed the others. The solicitor who had prepared the wills and was the first witness did not notice this, neither did the second witness, the solicitors secretary.

After the death of the husband in 2006 their natural sons did notice the mistake and claimed the part of the estate that was governed by intestacy laws. In Marley v Rawlings [2012] All ER (D) 38 (Feb), the appeal court found in favour of the sons, the supposed beneficiary, the couples adopted son losing out. The judge expressed her regrets but concluded that it would be wrong for the court to go beyond what parliament decided. Terry Marley, the adopted son could now make a claim for negligence against the solicitor whose slip cost him £70,000.

In 2004 Martin Lavin had, on his death bed, made a will in which his sister Anne became his sole beneficiary, however she had held his hand while he signed it. The will was declared intestate then was found to be valid. On appeal (Barrett v Bem [2012] EWCA Civ 52, [2012] All ER (D) 175 (Jan)), the court overturned that decision as there was no evidence that Anne had asked Martin if she should step in and sign the will or that Martin had actually asked his sister to help him sign. The judge reasoned that it was undesireable for anyone to execute a will in which they would be the beneficiary and that the testator must make a verbal or non verbal request for a third party to sign the will on his behalf. The judge also suggested that parliament should consider a change in the law to prevent such an occurance in the future.

Disputes over inheritance are of course not limited to the UK and some cases in the US could make it to the ‘Funny Old World’ page of Private Eye.

A Florida probate court has yet to rule on a case the twists in which Judge Glenn Kelly has stated “border on the sureal and take the court into a legal twilight zone.”

Businessman John Goodman is facing criminal charges following a car accident in 2010 in which he is alledged to have killed 23 year old Scott Wilson. The deceased’s parents are also bringing a civil action against Goodman.

The court had ruled that a multi million dollar trust fund set up to benefit his two children could not be considered part of Goodman’s wealth when assesing punitive damages as sought by the family of the deceased, but this has now changed following a bizarre move.

Goodman has adopted his girlfriend and made her the third beneficiary of the trust. The children are under 35 and cannot take control of the trust but Heather Hutchings the 42 year old adopted girlfriend is immediately entitled to one third of the trust.

The court is to decide whether this change can shelter his wealth from a lawsuit or whether the change constitutes grounds to include at least some of the assets of the trust.

In light of a 51 years to life sentence for poisoning her husband with anti freeze, a New York woman, Stacey Castor, might have thought that forging her husband’s will would be overlooked. This was not the case. In (Castor v Pulaski, 2011 NY Slip Op 52250(U)). David Jr the deceased’s son sued Stacey’s friends Paul and Lynn Pulaski for aiding the forgery.  The judge noted that the defendants had only ‘come clean’ in exchange for immunity when testifying to forgery and had deceived the court into “probating a fraudulent instrument.”

David Jr was awarded over $127,000 from his fathers estate and $250,000 punitive damages from the Pulaskis. Stacey’s forgery added another 16 months to her sentence.

Finders do not only trace beneficiaries but offer a range of other services. Finders will conduct a will search to establish whether there is a missing will, or find the most up to date will, something that may have helped the litigants in the cases discussed. Finders also provide missing beneficiary insurance which protects trustees and administrators against the event of an unknown beneficiary emerging after an estate has been distributed. As agents for Aviva they are regulated by the Financial Services Authority.

For further information and advice contact Finders , 6-8VestryStreet, London N1 7RE 020 7490 4935

Daniel Curran
Written by Daniel Curran
Daniel is a leading figure in the UK Heir Hunting industry. He is from Isleworth in West London and has lived in London for most of his life. He has been in the probate genealogy profession since 1990. He formed Finders in 1997 after 7 years at another firm.