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Posted on Saturday, February 28th, 2015 by Adam Reid

When an Administrator files a Will for probate in Chester County, it may not be the only document the Register of Wills considers. Other documents previously unknown to the beneficiaries of the Will can have a profound influence on the disposition of the decedent’s property.

In many cases, a Will is not the only document expressing the testator’s estate plan. The most typical being a codicil and separate memorandums attempting to dispose of personal property. Navigating the effect of these documents, and the many others that can affect a Will requires technical– localized knowledge of the County’s Orphans’ Court decisions.

Lets examine a case that highlights the impactof a codicil on a valid Will. Our facts come from the case, Basner Will, decided by the Orphans’ Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County.

The issue before the court was whether the undated signed document could rightfully be admitted to probate as a codicil, supplanting a valid and dated Will.

Factual Timeline:

  • JB lives in and owns a house in Chester County, Pennsylvania for 35 years.
  • JB’s house is his only property.
  • 7/7/1995, JB signs Will leaving all worldly possessions to mother (EB).
  • 4/23/2005, JB marries SM, who moves into Chester County home.
  • 8/1/2008, JB & SM consult attorney regarding drafting of new Will.
  • 9/30/2011, JB & SM separate, but continue living together.
  • 6/7/12, JB dies.
  • After JB’s death, undated signed document found bequeathing house to SM.
  • Two documents submitted to Register of Wills for probate:
    1. Will signed 7/7/1995 bequeathing “all worldly possessions” to EB; and
    2. Undated signed document bequeathing the house to SM.

SM’s Argument:
SM argued the undated document was a codicil, written and signed after the 1995 Will. A codicil is a supplement or addition to a will. It may explain, modify, add to or subtract from, qualify, alter or revoke provisions in an existing will. In Chester County, the elements of a valid codicil are: a writing, signed by the testator at the end, written sometime after a valid will that is a legal declaration of the testator’s intention to be preformed after the testator’s death.

If the undated document in question was signed before the Will, the Will prevails and governs distribution. But if the undated document was signed after the Will, it constitutes a codicil and governs distribution of the Chester County home.

Outcome:
The court found the unsigned document, under Chester County Orphans’ Court precedent, was a valid codicil. In this case, the document was handwritten with a unique signature. SM’s most difficult burden of proof, when the document was written, was easier to prove than in most cases. SM and JB first met in 2003, therefore, the Orphans’ Court reasoned the document must have been written after 1995. We can imagine many instances when this would be more difficult if not impossible to prove. Finally, the language JB used in the document satisfied the legal declaration of testator’s intent.

SM established the elements of a valid codicil in Chester County, entitling the document to be admitted to probate. Since the house was JB’s only property, the codicil left SM as the sole beneficiary to JB’s estate.

Conclusion:
Orphans’ Court decisions are based on centuries of precedent. And as shown above, in certain circumstances, the result can be technical and unexpected. Having an attorney with a history of estate planning experience is a way to ensure your well-thought-out disposition comes to fruition.

If you need assistance with estate administration, probate or with developing your Estate Plan, please call one of our Probate Lawyers or Estate Planning Attorneys for a free consultation. We have Estate Planning Attorneys in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota and Florida.

Wills, Trusts and Estates, It’sAll We Do!

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