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Handmade Will Leaves $10 Million Estate Hanging

 Posted on May 20, 2016 in Property Taxes

Sometimes people balk at paying lawyers to do what they think they can do for themselves. What could be simpler than a will, if you are just leaving everything to your family? All you have to do is name an executor. Two or three sentences, one page, and you are done . Right? Maybe not.

Ethel Hinz died in 1992 with an estate of over $10 million. She left a handwritten will. Her estate still has not been settled after 24 years.

The will was only a few sentences. Ethel named her son executor, describing him as her "sole heir," and saying she trusted he would "subscribe to my wishes, along lines that were discussed previously and privately in the past." Ethel wrote the will just a few days after her daughter had died, survived by two granddaughters, who would of course also be "heirs" if Ethel had not written a will.

Possibly the "subscribe to my wishes" language was meant to create a trust for the granddaughters, with their uncle, the decedent's son , as trustee. If so, the terms of that trust are unknown, and would not be enforceable by a court.

The son left his mother's estate open until his own death in 2009. His wife stepped in as administrator. She asked the court for instructions on how the estate was to be distributed. The granddaughters finally stepped forward.

They argued the will was ambiguous, and the estate should be distributed as though Ethel had not written it at all - that is, half to their uncle's estate, and a quarter to each of them.

The trial court agreed, but the administrator appealed, and the appeals court reversed, with instructions to the trial court to distribute the entire estate to the son 's estate. By referring to her son as her "sole heir," the appeals court found, Ethel had unambiguously disinherited her granddaughters.

One member of the three-judge panel dissented at length, and would have granted a motion for rehearing, but was outvoted .

We do not know whether the son himself had a will. If not, the entire $10 million will go to his surviving spouse, disinheriting Ethel's granddaughters altogether.

Of course we cannot really know why Ethel did not hire a lawyer to write her will. But if her purpose was to save a few dollars in lawyers' fees, that plan obviously failed, as the estate has been open fourteen years and in litigation for seven, and it may not be over yet.

You can avoid this kind of mess by engaging a lawyer to write your will who understands what kinds of difficulties might arise in the settlement of your estate and can draft around them. Please contact us for a consultation.

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