California, like many states, recognizes some handwritten wills as valid testamentary documents. And while a do-it-yourself will is almost never a good idea, there are some cases in which very unique wills were deemed valid by the courts. Note that many of the below examples are from outside California, and so were governed by different legal standards. Also, it goes without saying that we don’t recommend anything other than a professionally drafted will. For every crazy will that is admitted as valid, countless others are rejected as defective. When that happens, a decedent’s estate is passed to their heirs according to California law, not according to how the decedent wanted to distribute their property. Sadly, with a little foresight that is an easily preventable situation.
Here are a few stranger-than-fiction wills from over the years:
A writer died, leaving behind the following handwritten poem:
“MUM AND DAD I THINK IM DYING PLEASE LOOK AFTER ALL MY GOOD WRITING. THERE MIGHT BE SOME MORE IN THE DRAWER TAKE CARE OF ‘EM I WANT YOU TO HAVE MY HOUSE”
The decedent’s mother found the above poem written on a sheet of paper that was stuck out of a stack of books by the decedent’s bed. The trial court ruled that the unsigned poem did not constitute a will, reasoning that it appeared to be in the nature of a suicide note expressing “wishes and requests” rather than a document intended to operate as a testamentary instrument. The case was appealed, and the appellate court held that the document was in fact intended to operate as a will: it was prominently placed in a location where it would be found; it was addressed to “Mum and Dad,” the two people with whom the decedent was apparently closest, and finally; it was written on what the appellate judge described as a “solemn unique occasion, as a last message to his parents.”
The appellate judge noted that he was perplexed by the lack of reference to any assets other than the decedent’s house and his “good writing,” but it appears that in the decedent’s eyes, those were the only valuables worth mentioning.
The Shortest will:
When a German businessman realized he was dying in 1967, he wrote “Vse zene” – Czech for “All to wife” – on his bedroom wall. The Guinness Book of World Records lists this as the world’s shortest will. There’s not much else to say about it.
The Tractor Fender:
No list of strange wills is complete without the story of Canadian Cecil George Harris, who died in a farming accident in 1948. Mr. Harris was working his fields alone when his tractor rolled, pinning him beneath the machine for 12 hours during a thunderstorm. He was eventually found and brought to a hospital, but unfortunately died. A couple of neighbors went to look at Mr. Harris’ tractor, and while doing so they found that during the ordeal he had scratched a note into the paint on the metal fender:
“In case I die in this mess I leave all to the wife. Cecil Geo. Harris.”
The neighbors took the fender off of the tractor and brought it to a local attorney, who successfully probated it as Mr. Harris’ will. The fender and the pocketknife used to write the message are displayed in the University of Saskatchewan law school library.
The Invisible will:
Beth A. Baer, a blind woman, set out to write her will. She wrote the entire document on a sheet of paper, but unfortunately had no way of knowing that the pen she was using was out of ink and thus none of what she had written was visible. A handwriting expert was hired to review the blank page and managed to decipher the holographic will based only on the indentations in the paper made by the tip of the pen. The blank page was probated in California in 1950.
Margaret Nothe died in Pennsylvania in 1913. A recipe book was found in her personal property; written into one of the recipes was Ms. Nothe’s holographic will. The recipe reads: “Chop tomatoes, onions and peppers fine . . . Measure tomatoes when peeled. In case I die before my husband I leave everything to him. . . .” A Pennsylvania court recognized the page as a valid holographic will, and probated it, giving all to Ms. Nothe’s husband.
The Chest of Drawers:
A man in Los Angeles wrote his last wishes on the bottom of a wooden chest of drawers, signed his name at the end of the note, and then for good measure glued a picture of himself next to the note. The bottom of the chest was sawn out and presented to the probate court in 1948. It is unknown if the deceased’s testamentary wishes were granted or not.
#Fail – Wills That Didn’t Work
The Form Letter:
Dorothy Southworth signed and dated a donor card for the North Shore Animal League. On the card, she circled the option that stated: “I am not taking action now, but my intention is [in the following blank space she handwrote] My entire estate is to be left to North Shore Animal League.” Ms. Southworth mailed the card to the North Shore Animal League.
The court held that the card evidenced Ms. Southworth’s future intent to give her estate to the North Shore Animal League, rather than present testamentary intent. The court reasoned that the form language on the card stating “I am not taking action now” showed that Ms. Southworth did not intend for the document to constitute her will, but rather intended to follow up later by confirming her promise to the North Shore Animal League by executing a will giving them all of her estate.
In the end, the North Shore Animal League received nothing of the estimated half-million-dollar estate. Ms. Southworth might have believed that what she wrote was unambiguous, but the court did not agree.
The Letter of the Law:
Frank Blain executed a valid holographic will and put it into his safety deposit box. The same box contained a ring, around which Mr. Blain had wrapped a note that read: “to Sonia Lambert (signed) Frank Blain.” Ms. Lambert, Mr. Blain’s sole heir at law, was not mentioned in his holographic will, which gave all of his property to others. Further, the will did not indicate that the omission was intentional. Due to being omitted from the will, Ms. Lambert was presumptively entitled to inherit the entire estate.
The trial court reasoned that the five-word note attached to the ring could not be deemed testamentary in character, as it contained no description or specification of any property and did not express an intention to convey property upon death. Further, a holographic will must be complete in itself, not a combination of various papers or notes.
The trial court ruled that despite the holographic will’s validity, Ms. Lambert should receive the entire estate as a pretermitted (omitted) heir. The case was appealed, and the appellate court agreed with the trial court, holding that despite the ruling going completely against the decedent’s intent, the clear legal standard regarding pretermitted heirs must be given priority over the specific intent of the decedent. Mr. Blain’s attempt to disinherit his only heir was unsuccessful, and she took the entire estate. The trial court noted the issues with Mr. Blain’s do-it-yourself will, stating “[A] little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Don’t Try This at Home
While the simplicity and allure of the holographic will is tempting to some, the anticipated benefits quickly prove illusory in the face of legal challenge. After losing a loved one, the last thing a family member wants to deal with is a fight over the estate. When in doubt, hire a professional. Having a solid estate plan – one that for many people should include a trust as well as a will – can provide comfort and assurance. Contact us at our one of our Northern California offices (Sacramento, Elk Grove, San Jose or Walnut Creek) to schedule a free estate planning consultation, in person, by phone, or through video conferencing. We would be happy to prepare you a professional will, one that you can count on to do the job when the time comes.