I once had a client whose husband had died many years previous, leaving a will in which he left all his property to her. The will had been prepared by a local attorney who later retired, and had died by the time the client retained me. The client had furnished a copy of the will to her accountant, who used it to prepare an estate tax return. However, the accountant only had a copy of the first few pages of the will, not including the signature pages. The client evidently lost the original will and could not locate a copy of it. All we had to go on was the copy of a portion of the will that the accountant had. I did my best to track down the original will or a copy. The drafting attorney was deceased and although I located his former secretary, she indicated that his files had not been retained; the will would have gone back to the client. In short, there was no extant copy of the full will.
Can you probate a lost will? In some instances, yes. If a will is lost by accident after the decedent’s death, or destroyed by fraud during the decedent’s lifetime and without his or her knowledge, a court may receive evidence of the execution and validity of the will. A lost will would have to be proved in the same way as other wills; the persons who witnessed the testator sign the will would have to testify to that fact. This may not be difficult if you know who the witnesses were and can locate them. Often the witnesses of a will are law office personnel. Most law office personnel who witness wills do so often enough that they would not be able to recall a particular instance; especially not where the will had been signed many years prior. If you can locate the witnesses and they remember the will, then the proponent of a lost will has to show that it is more likely than not that the will in question was never revoked by the testator; if no one objects, the court may admit it to probate. In the case of my client, we didn’t know who had witnessed the will because we did not have the signature pages or the pages signed by the witnesses. Without that, we could not offer the lost will for probate.
Lessons learned? Make sure your original will, and your spouse’s original will, are kept in a secure, fire safe location and that the location is known to those who will handle your estate at your death. Often an attorney’s office will store the original will in a vault. If your attorney retires and returns the original to you, put it in another safe place, such as a safe deposit box. Better yet, go to another attorney and see if the will needs updating; the new attorney may have a vault where the will and codicil could be stored. Make sure to keep full copies of the executed will. Finally, keep the original will and copies after the testator dies, even if you do not think there are any assets to probate at his or her death. This is critical! In the case of my client, her husband had died 20 years prior and she thought all assets were in joint tenancy at their death. It was only in refinancing some property that she discovered this was not the case.
If you have questions or concerns about lost wills or the proper care of original estate planning documents, consult with a qualified estate attorney.