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Anyone reading this blog can surely sympathize that the last thing any of us wants to do after a long day at the office is go home and turn on a television show that depicts our exact profession. Lawyers don’t want to watch legal drama’s, Policeman don’t want to want the myriad of law enforcement drama’s and surely all of you professional singer’s out there don’t want to watch "American Idol" or "The Voice". However, I must admit, one of my guilty pleasures is that I truly enjoy the show “The Good Wife”. For whatever the reason may be, the show is one legal drama that I can stand to watch. But, as an estate planning and estate administration attorney, this past week’s episode left me shaking my head and laughing.
One of the main storylines in the episode this past week revolved around a will contest. Alicia, one of the main attorney’s in the show, had a past client who had recently died. Upon opening his estate, it was discovered that there were two conflicting wills. The first will left this individual’s entire fortune ($24 million dollars) to his wife, a fairly simple concept to grasp. The second will split the individual’s entire fortune, one-half (½) to charity and one-half (½) ironically to Alicia. Let the drama begin!
Both wills were duly executed and witnessed with all the proper formalities. The second will was handwritten. Issue? While maybe not the most professional, so long as all the formalities are followed, no issue ultimately arises. So the scene was set as both sides stood in the courtroom dramatically arguing to the judge and to each other that their copy of the will was the valid copy to be enforced. Then, the Hollywood twist, the judge announces that he will have no choice but to enforce “both” versions of the will. As soon as I heard this, I immediately hit the rewind button (because I DVR everything) and I listened again. Upon hearing it a second time I just had to laugh.
For purposes of this blog, let’s set aside the fact that ultimately two things happened. First, undue influence was found to have occurred to force the execution of the first will for the wife and thus invalidated it. Second, five more handwritten wills were later discovered leaving money and property to various women (another obvious Hollywood twist) which ultimately led to the invalidity of all of these wills (reasoning not given). Ultimately, the estate passed by intestacy to the wife, an ending, while not discussed in the show, is interesting considering the initial will for the wife was invalid. This shows, maybe inadvertently, a lesson that bad estate planning or mistake can lead to catastrophic endings or legacies being distributed not as the decedent intended.
The main focus for my purposes was the Judge’s comment that he was going to initially uphold both wills. Is this possible, especially when they are in direct conflict? The answer is NO. During the exchange in Court, it was briefly stated that the handwritten second will was the later executed will. Further, as recognized by the Court, the second will was validly executed with the necessary formalities. Thus, that second will would govern. Accordingly, the second lesson to be learned by this episode is, be careful what you wish for. Some people execute wills frequently based upon emotions or due to monthly changes in family relationships. Some people execute a will once and never look at it again. Both methods can prove troublesome. Executing a will based on pure emotion or the “family fight of the week” can lead to a situation where whoever has the best relationship at the end of the decedent’s life essentially becomes the beneficiary (i.e. the last man/woman standing). The flip side is executing a will and not reviewing it for 20 years. Such a situation can lead to individuals who are deceased, divorced or estranged receiving property when in no form or fashion would that have been intended.
There is a happy medium. We recommend to most of our clients that a review every 3-5 years is sufficient. This clearly changes based on each clients changing circumstances. However, the rule is in the title of the document “Last Will and Testament”. The last document validly executed is more then likely going to govern, so make sure you review that document personally to make sure it says what you intend and with a knowledgeable estate planning attorney to make sure that what you intend is properly stated as required under the law.
Tune in Sunday evening’s at 9pm on CBS to see what Alicia will do next!
-Adam Abramowitz, Esq.