Legally Speaking: The right way to change a will

Legally Speaking: The right way to change a will

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By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My mother recently passed away. She and my father were divorced and my mother was in a long-term relationship with Tom. My mother prepared her will before she met Tom. After living with Tom for many years, my mother made changes to her will by writing in the margins of the pages of the will. The changes were advantageous to Tom. She also prepared a written statement that provides that Tom was to receive all of the funds in her bank account at the time of her death. The written statement was signed and notarized.

THE QUESTIONS: When my mother’s will is admitted to probate, what effect, if any, will the notes in the margins and the written statement have on the administration of my mother’s estate? In light of the fact that he is not mentioned in the original will, is Tom entitled to a share of my mother’s probate estate?

THE ANSWER: Without seeing the will and the written statement, I cannot conclusively state that Tom is not entitled to a share of your mother’s probate estate. However, from the information you provided, it appears that the handwritten changes to the will and the notarized statement will not be enforceable. That is because your mother apparently did not comply with the requirements set forth in the New York statutes pertaining to the execution of amendments to a will. 

Certain formalities must be observed when a will or an amendment to a will, known as a codicil, is executed by a testatrix (a woman signing a will.) Different states have different laws that govern the execution of a will. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) 3-2.1 provides, among other things:

1. that a will must be signed by the testatrix at the end of the document,

2. that no effect shall be given to any matter that follows the signature of the testatrix other than an attestation clause signed by witnesses,

3. that no effect shall be given to any matter preceding the testatrix’s signature that was added subsequent to the execution of the will, 

4. that the testatrix shall sign the will in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses who have been advised that the document they are signing is the testatrix’s will, and

5. that the witnesses must sign an attestation clause stating that the testatrix advised them that they were witnessing the execution of her will and that they did so in her presence and the presence of the other witness. The attestation clause is considered part of the will. 

In addition to the attestation clause, most attorneys who supervise the execution of wills have the attesting witnesses sign an affidavit stating that they witnessed the execution of the will by the testatrix, that she was of sound mind and acting voluntarily and that they witnessed the signing of the will at the request of the testatrix. This affidavit is not considered to be part of the will but is generally stapled to the back of the will.  

Based upon EPTL 3-2.1, the handwritten notes in the margin are clearly not enforceable since they were added to the will long after your mother executed the will in the presence of witnesses. As such, they will not carry any weight, and the executor will not be obligated to take them into consideration when administering the estate. 

As for the statement that your mother signed in the presence of a notary, unless it was also signed in the presence of two witnesses who affixed their signatures at the end of the attestation clause following your mother’s signature, the written statement does not comply with the requirements of the statute. Consequently, to the extent the written statement conflicts with the provisions of the original will, it will not be enforceable. 

Unless the executor and the beneficiaries under your mother’s will are inclined to give effect to the handwritten changes and your mother’s written statement, Tom will not be receiving a share of your mother’s probate estate. This may be a good outcome for the beneficiaries but, assuming your mother was of sound mind when she made the changes and truly wanted Tom to be a beneficiary of her estate, it means that your mother’s wishes are not being honored. That result is unfortunate and could have been avoided if your mother retained an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare a new will or a codicil for her. 

Under the supervision of an attorney it is more than likely that the proper formalities would have been followed when a new will or codicil was signed, ensuring that your mother’s wishes would be honored. 

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning, wills and trusts, Medicaid planning, marital agreements, estate administration, small business services, real estate and litigation. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.  

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