This blog post was originally published on May 16, 2018, on my previous website.
The New York Post had a recent article (linked here) about the fight for the assets of Mr. Stephen Evans, a Manhattan millionaire who passed away in 2017, apparently leaving behind only a handwritten note as instructions as to how to distribute more than $3 million in assets. The handwritten document, labeled "Last Will," left Mr. Evans's apartment to a doorman at his building and his stocks and bank accounts to be split between building workers. Despite the clarity of Mr. Evans's intentions, Mr. Evans's only living relative, a nephew, is contesting the document.
Handwritten wills that were not executed according to the prescribed execution formalities (e.g., in the presence of witnesses) are referred to as "holographic wills," and they are subject to special rules that vary from state to state. Some states will accept handwritten wills that did not have witnesses so long as the handwriting of the testator can be confirmed.
Other states refuse altogether to accept wills without the prescribed execution formalities, regardless of how the will was written down. Georgia is one of these states.
Yet other states will generally refuse holographic wills, but have special exceptions. In New York, a handwritten will that was not signed in front of a witness is valid if it is written by a member of the armed forces (or a by a person who accompanies armed forces, perhaps such as a reporter) during a war or other armed conflict, but only until one year following discharge from the armed services (or, in the case of the person accompanying the armed forces, for one year after leaving the presence of the armed forces). A holographic will is also valid if written by a mariner, while at sea, but only for three years. See NY EPT Sect. 3-2.2.
Since the elderly Mr. Evans did not fit into these special circumstances, his holographic will was not acceptable and was refused by the court. Presently, a search of Mr. Evans's possessions is ongoing to see if there is another, valid will. If one cannot be found, it is likely that the New York court will ignore this handwritten letter and distribute the wealth of Mr. Evans to the person next in line under the state's intestacy rules: the nephew. For want of witnesses when Mr. Evans wrote his will, his friends at his building will lose out on his generosity.
Making sure that a will is properly executed is an essential part of making an estate plan. If you have questions, be sure to call an attorney.