Your Most Recent Will May Not Be Your “Last” Will
A last will and testament is an estate planning document specifying who you wish to receive your property upon your death. If you die intestate—that is, without leaving a will—your property will pass to your next-of-kin in accordance with Florida law. Your property may also pass intestate if your will is found invalid by a Florida probate court.
Lakeland Court Sorts Out $12 Million Estate Left by 107-Year-Old Widow
But even if your most recent will is deemed invalid for some reason, a probate court may still choose to admit an earlier will that you signed rather than apply Florida intestacy law. Earlier this year, a Florida appeals court in Lakeland did just that in an unusual case involving a 107-year-old woman who died leaving several possible wills.
The decedent passed away in 2006. She was a widow with no children or siblings. Over the years she had signed a number of wills. The most recent will, executed in 1994, was submitted to the probate court by the person named as personal representative. This will also left the bulk of the decedent’s estate—reportedly worth $12 million—to the personal representative.
The decedent’s second cousin contested the will. The cousin, who was also a named beneficiary of one of the decedent’s earlier wills, said the personal representative and other beneficiaries named in the 1994 will had exercised “undue influence” over the decedent. Following a lengthy trial in 2008, a Florida probate court agreed with the cousin that the 1994 will was the product of “undue influence.”
The question remained how to distribute the decedent’s estate. The probate court held that only those portions of the 1994 will distributing property were invalid. The remainder of the will, which included a boilerplate clause revoking all of the decedent’s prior wills, remained in force. Accordingly, the judge declared that the entire estate should pass according to Florida intestacy law.
“Suffice it to say,” the Florida Second District Court of Appeals observed, “none of the litigants were particularly satisfied with that result.” On appeal, the Second District decided it was appropriate and legal, under the circumstances, to reinstate the last will signed by the decedent before she was affected by the undue influence. The appeals court cited an old common law rule known as the “doctrine of dependent relative revocation.” As applied by the Florida Supreme Court, this doctrine “means that where [a] testator makes a new will revoking a former valid one, and it later appears that the new one is invalid, the old will may be re-established on the ground that the revocation was dependent upon the validity of the new one, [the] testator preferring the old will to intestacy.”
As a result of the Second District’s decision, the cousin and a medical school received most of the decedent’s estate under the terms of an earlier will. Had the estate passed under intestacy, the Second District noted there were at least 48 distant relatives—most of whom never knew the decedent or their relation to her—who would have inherited the estate. This type of scenario illustrates the difficulty of administering estates where there is no valid will and the decedent has no immediate surviving family members.
To avoid leaving your own estate in a similar situation, you should speak with an experienced St. Petersburg estate planning attorney who can assist you with preparing a will and related documents. Contact the offices of Carnal & Mansfield, P.A., if you would like to speak with someone today.