Clear Evidence Of Testamentary Intent Prevails Over Formalities Governing Will Formation: Handwritten Notations On A Letter Constitute A Valid Will

Superior Court Judge Walter Koprowski, Jr. ruled on February 1, 2011 that handwritten notations on a hand-written letter constituted a valid will, although the letter itself did not.

In Estate of Randall, the decedent’s cousin, plaintiff Charles Cameron, III, offered for probate two pages of a photocopied letter from 1998, with original marginal notations. The photocopied portion of the letter, with original notations, had been found by the plaintiff/cousin in a bureau drawer at the decedent’s home. (Slip op. at 1).

The photocopied portion of the letter, in the decedent’s handwriting, was unsigned.  The letter had been written to Charles and, although Charles was unable to locate the original among his own papers, he had found the photocopied two pages from the middle of the letter in the decedent’s home. The marginal notes, dated September 8, 2004, stated, “Note: Sept. 8, 2004—Everything but Trust, which will be divided between Charles and Janet is to go to Charles, in appreciation for all his help through the years.” The text of the letter, which had been written to Charles, had stated, “Everything that remains would be divided between you and Janet.” Those words were later crossed out, and in the margin next to the strikeout, the decedent had written, “VOID–*note see Sept. 4, 2008 correction.”

Judge Koprowski began his analysis by reviewing N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2(a), which contains the formal requirements of a will, and N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2(b), which provides that a will failing to comply with those formal requirements may nonetheless be admitted to probate as a valid will, “whether or not witnessed, if the signature and material portions of the document are in the testator’s own handwriting.” Judge Koprowski then considered N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3, enacted in 2004, which provides that,

Although a document or writing added upon a document was not executed in compliance with NJ.S. 3B:3-2, the document or writing is treated as if it had been executed in compliance with [it] if the proponent of the document or writing established by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document or writing to constitute: 1) the decedent’s will; 2) a partial or complete revocation of the will; 3) an addition to or alteration of the will; or 4) a partial or complete revival of his formerly revoked will or portion thereof.

Slip op. at 2 (quoting N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3).

Plaintiff, whom the Court found to be credible, had testified as to the close relationship between himself and the decedent, and as to the decedent’s mistrust of “lawyers, courts and financial institutions.” He testified that, when he had received the original letter, he had assumed the decedent had a separate will and that the letter was merely informational. (Slip op. at 2, 4).

The Court concluded that, with respect to the initial letter, the plaintiff failed to establish the decedent’s testamentary intent by clear and convincing evidence, as required by N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3. (Slip op. at 3).

However, with respect to the marginal notations on the letter, the Court found that those notes should be given testamentary effect, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3.  The Court reasoned that,

In adopting N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3, … the Legislature clearly intends to loosen the rigid formalities which had previously governed will formation, and to move away from situations in which failure of those rigid formalities would defeat the testator’s clear intent.

(Slip op. at 3). The Court found that, because the decedent had made a photocopy of the pages from the letter and retained them in her bureau for years, she had recognized them as an important document capable of disposing of her estate on her death. When she decided to change the disposition, she made the marginal notations, including the indication that the words of the original letter were “void,” again indicating that those words had testamentary effect.  Judge Koprowski concluded,  “I find the language of the notation, as brief as it is, expresses sufficient testamentary intent when viewed in the context of the body of the letter, and its maintenance in a safe place for so many years.” (Slip op. at 4).

A copy of Estate of Randall can be found here: Estate of Randall.