Eccentricity Does Not Invalidate An Otherwise Valid Holographic Will

The validity of a 1977 alleged holographic will was at issue in the Estate of Inez Bull case, decided on March 10, 2011 by the Hon. Walter Koprowski, Jr., J.S.C. On summary judgment, Judge Koprowski ruled that the holographic will was valid, and admitted it to probate.

Inez Bull had drafted a purported holographic will in 1949, which left her estate to her mother and expressly disinherited her father and his heirs. Inez Bull’s parents predeceased her and, in 1977, she drafted the purported holographic will at issue.

Ms. Bull’s estate, valued at approximately $1.2 million, consisted of her home in Montclair, New Jersey, a bungalow in Sparta, New Jersey, and a tiny, undeveloped parcel in a remote area of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania property was only .17 of an acre, and consisted of 7 structures the size of sheds or child’s playhouses. The decedent referred to the property as the “Ole Bull Museum.”

Her 1977 will disinherited her family, and left “my Ole Bull Museum and all artifacts… to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… and to the Norwegian government to run said museum jointly as a Norwegian-American goodwill historical project.” Slip op. at 2-3. According to one paragraph, the two women who would run the museum were given the home in Montclair, and use of the Sparta property; in the next paragraph, the Montclair and Sparta properties were given to the State of New Jersey, with conditions, and the Norwegian government was given a springing executory interest, in the event that those conditions were not met. Ms. Bull’s remaining assets were to be used to finance the museum. Id. at 3.

The Court found that the 1977 will complied with the statutory requirements of N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2(b), because it was undisputed that the signature and material provisions of the will were in Inez Bull’s handwriting.

Nevertheless, the peculiar disposition scheme set forth in the will served as the basis for several challenges to the will’s validity. Ms. Bull’s first cousin had argued that Ms. Bull lacked capacity to make a valid will, and that the will was the product of “insane delusions” and/or “mistake.” The cousin did not provide expert opinion or medical records in support of the claim. The Court dismissed the claim, noting that, with respect to insane delusion,

An eccentric or even bizarre disposition scheme, even if it is internally inconsistent or contradictory, or even if the goals and wishes expressed by it demonstrate a naïveté or unrealistic level of ambition, are not sufficient to support a claim of invalidity of the will as a product of insane delusion.

Id., p. 5. With respect to the incapacity claim, Judge Koprowski reasoned that,

a disposition scheme that may be described as “eccentric” is not itself evidence of testamentary incapacity, and certainly does not rise to the level of clear and convincing proof that Ms. Bull lacked the ability to comprehend the property she disposed of, the objects of her bounty, the meaning of the business in which she was engaged, the relation of each of these factors to the others and the manner of distribution set forth in the will.

With respect to the claim that mistake had rendered the will invalid, Judge Koprowski found that the basis for the “mistake” claim had not been articulated and was not supported in the record. Id.

Consequently, the Court admitted the 1977 will to probate, and held that the 1949 will was accordingly revoked by inconsistency, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:3-13.

Because the 1977 will failed to name an Executor, the Court next examined the process for appointment of an administrator, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:10-15 and 3B:10-2. Despite the statutory order of preference set forth in N.J.S.A. 3B:10-2 for appointment of an administrator, the Court found that In re Estate of DiBella clarifies that the statute sets forth a preference for an order, rather than a directive. Id. at 7. Accordingly, based upon the court-appointed Temporary Administrator’s experience and the interim services he had already provided in the case, the Court appointed him as Administrator CTA.

The Court next addressed the interpretation of the 1977 will. Rejecting the cousin’s claim that the will failed as a matter of law, Judge Koprowski explained:

The Court does not give consideration to the appropriateness, feasibility, or ease of implementation of specific will provisions and devises if the will otherwise meets the criteria for admission to probate. Similarly, a confusing or even difficult-to-interpret will does not lose its validity and require intestacy simply by virtue of incoherence or inconsistency.

Id. at 7. The Court went on to consider the disinheritance provisions in Ms. Bull’s will. It found clear Ms. Bull’s intent to leave nothing to any of her family. Next, it found that the will appeared to have a residuary clause, leaving all remaining assets to the museum. The Court then determined that, even if there was property unaccounted for by the residuary clause of Ms. Bull’s will, that property would not pass by intestacy to her heirs. The Court cited to the “negative disinheritance” provisions of N.J.S.A. 3B:5-2, which provides that,

A decedent by will may expressly exclude or limit the right of an individual or class to succeed to property of the decedent passing by intestate succession. If that individual or member of that class survives the decedent, the share of the decedent’s intestate estate to which that individual or class would have succeeded passes as if that individual or each member of that class has disclaimed his intestate share.

N.J.S.A. 3B:5-2(b). Based upon these “negative disinheritance” provisions, even if there were no effective residuary clause, Judge Koprowski concluded that the assets not disposed of would not pass by partial intestacy. Slip op. at 8.

Finally, the Court ruled that, because half-siblings of Ms. Bull had been located in Norway, the cousins involved in the case lost their standing as “interested parties,” since there were no circumstances under which they could take, by intestacy or by will. Id. at 9.

Judge Koprowski found that further proceedings would be required to determine the remaining issues (including the doctrines of cy pres and probable intent) in order to address the “possible ways to modify the will of Inez Bull so as to maintain as much of her original disposition scheme as possible.” Id. at 9.

A copy of the In re Estate of Inez Bull decision can be found here.

Attached is The Montclair Times Obituary of Inez Bull.