In my previous blog regarding lost wills, I discussed a client whose husband’s original will was lost. One discerning reader asked what happened to the client—wouldn’t she inherit everything from her husband anyway? In that case, I wish it had been so. Unfortunately for the client, that was not the case, even though it had been her husband’s intention.
Since the later will could not be offered for probate, we had to go back to his previous will, which was made before his marriage and left everything to his siblings. All was not lost, however. Where a person marries after making a will and his spouse survives him, Nevada law provides that the will is “revoked as to the spouse,” provided that the deceased spouse did not make provision for the surviving spouse by marriage contract or otherwise make it clear in the will that he intentionally omitted her. The technical term for the inadvertently omitted spouse is a “pretermitted spouse”, from the verb “pretermit” which means to leave undone or to neglect. The law also provides for pretermitted children, i.e., children born after the deceased makes his or her last will.
The term “revoked as to the spouse” does not mean that the wife received all of the deceased’s property. The rule about a pretermitted spouse has to be read together with Nevada’s laws regarding persons who die without wills. In my client’s case, her husband owned the property in question before their marriage; it was his separate property. Since he died without surviving parents or children, one half of his separate property was allocated to her as his pretermitted spouse, and the other one half was allocated as provided in the will he made before their marriage.
That was not the end of the story. We contacted the relatives, explained the situation to them and requested that they disclaim their interest to our client, since that was her husband’s intent per his later, lost will. One of the deceased’s siblings was willing to do so. The rest refused; they thought they were going to get a big windfall. Since our client had maintained the property for twenty years, paid all taxes and maintenance, and born all losses, we obtained court approval to shift their share of the proceeds of the sale of the property to her in compensation for her labor and out of pocket costs. All’s well that ends well, I suppose; but the loss of the husband’s true last will and testament caused a huge legal mess that could have been avoided if the original had been maintained.
If you have a question about your rights under a will as a pretermitted spouse or child, contact a qualified probate attorney.
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.