A Recent NJ Case Discusses When a Handwritten Note Can Be Probated as a Last Will
- Sometimes a handwritten letter or document can be probated as a Last Will or Holographic Will
- A probate court judge will read the written document and decide if it qualifies as a Legal Will
- NJ statutory laws on Last Wills can be waived under certain circumstances
Alice died in 2015. Following her death, a niece by marriage found a handwritten document among the personal papers in Alice’s kitchen. The handwritten document stated:
I’m Alice M. I wish to be cremated upon my death along with my husband and our ashes placed in a similar (illegible) and placed in mausoleum. I wish my estate be sold & divided in three and 1/3 granted to a friend, one third to a niece, and one third to another friend. I want (person’s name was listed) to be the executrix. I intend to see a lawyer to validate everything.
An investigation identified a nephew as a next of kin and sole legal (intestate) heir. The following week, plaintiff filed a verified complaint in the Probate court seeking to admit the handwritten note to probate as a legal will. The nephew opposed plaintiff’s application.
All parties agreed the handwriting on the Proposed Will belonged to Alice. After hearing argument, the court rendered a final judgement. The judge issued an order admitting the proposed note to probate as a Last Will, accompanied by an eight-page written opinion. In pertinent part, the judge stated:
In the present case, the court finds that Alice intended for the handwritten document to constitute a Will and simply intended to see a lawyer for any procedural formalities which were lacking.
New Jersey Laws on Admitting a Will to Probate
In her analysis of both N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2(b) and N.J. S.A. 3B:3-3, the court found that plaintiff met his burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence demonstrating that the purported Will was written by Alice and was intended to constitute a valid Last Will and testament.
An appeal followed. The Appellant Court agreed with the Trial Court. The issue again before the Appellate Court was whether the Proposed Will sufficiently represents Alice’s final testamentary intent to be admitted into probate under N.J.S.A. 3B:3-3.
N.J.S.A. 3B:3-2 sets forth the technical requirements for writings intended as Wills. The statute reads as follows:
- Except as provided in (N.J.S.A.) 3B:3-3, a Will shall be
(1) In writing;
(2) Signed by the testator or in the testator’s conscious presence and at the testator’s direction; and
(3) Signed by at least two individuals, each of whom signed within a reasonable time after each witnessed either the signing of the Will as described in paragraph (2) or the testator’s acknowledgment of that signature or acknowledgment of the Will.
- A Will that does not comply with subsection a. is valid as a writing intended as a Will, whether or not witnessed, if the signature and material portions of the document are in the testator’s handwriting.
- Intent that the document constitutes the testator’s Will can be established by extrinsic evidence, including for writing intended as Wills, portions of the document that are not in the testator’s handwriting.
The handwriting identified Alice as the writer. It said: “I am Alice M”. It served as a signature to the document, despite its placement at the top of the page. Accordingly, under N.J.S.A 3B:3-2(b), the court found that the handwritten letter constitutes a valid Will as both the writing and signature are in Alice’s handwriting.
A Court Looks at a Decedent’s Intent When Deciding if a Handwritten Note Qualifies as a Last Will
Although a document or writing with handwritten notes located upon it may not be in strict compliance with N.J.S.A 3B:3-2, if the proponent of the document or writing establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document or writing to constitute the decedent’s Will, it is lawful.
The Appellant Court was unpersuaded by the appellant’s challenge to the probate of the Proposed Will on the ground that “the decedent did not intend the document to be her Final Will” but only “the basis for a subsequent Will that would be ‘validated’ by a lawyer.” This contention overlooked the plain meaning of Alice’s written words. Alice clearly stated her testamentary intent by providing precise instructions of a testamentary nature, including burial instructions, the appointment of an executor, and the liquidation and division of her estate to her designated beneficiaries.
The court also rejected appellant’s argument that Alice’s stated intention “to see a lawyer and to validate everything” precludes a finding of testamentary intent. We agree with the judge that Alice’s “comments, taken at face value, simply indicate an intention to visit a lawyer to finalize a document with any required formalities and does not invalidate Alice’s present intention that the Proposed Will constitutes a valid Will.” It was satisfied that Alice’s Proposed Will embodied her testamentary intention and was properly admitted to probate.
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