Probate Denied For 5-Page Document In The Decedent’s Handwriting: It’s A Letter, Not A Will 

The decedent was a widow with no family. She had a close relationship with her neighbors. Shortly after a birthday party for the neighbors’ daughter, she handed the neighbors a check for $100, along with a 5-page document the decedent signed using her nickname, “A.J.”

At trial, there was no dispute that the decedent possessed testamentary capacity, or that she had prepared the hand-written document. It was addressed to the neighbors “and all who helped A.J. out.” The trial judge found that the document possessed a certain formality, with the decedent referring to herself in the third person. It offered words of thanks to the neighbors, discussed various issues including the cost of living in New Jersey and her plans to move to an assisted living facility out of state. It stated,

And, of course I wish – like if suddenly I died or something without the will that you folks could have my house even.

It ended with “cheers for now” and “TTYL.”

The trial judge relied upon In re Will of Macool, 417 N.J. Super. 298 (App. Div. 2010) to conclude that the document lacked the requisite testamentary intent to be considered a will:

It’s a letter. I do believe that she wanted at some point to make a will for you, but I don’t know that she was at that stage yet… the difference between a letter where she’s telling you what she’d like to do and a holographic will would be that her intent was the document that she was giving to you would be treated as a formal will….

The trial judge denied probate of the document, and the neighbor appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed. It noted that there are three types of will: a formal will; a holographic will; and a document that a decedent intended to constitute a will. In any of these three cases, however, the document must reflect the decedent’s intention to create a will: “Testamentary intent has always been a prerequisite to admission of an instrument to probate.” Because the neighbor failed to establish clearly and convincingly that the writing was intended as a will, the trial court properly denied probate.

The case is annexed here – In the Matter of the Estate of Alicia A. Heffley

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