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The Law Firm of Reed & Mansfield, Attorneys  Personal Injury & Property Damage, Las Vegas, NV

Valid vs. Invalid Wills:

Holographic (Handwritten Wills):

One day a Kansas farmer, we'll call him Dave Smith, came into my office with a torn scrap of paper about one third the size of a regular sheet of paper. Entirely in handwriting it said, "I leave everything to my friend Dave Smith. John Doe, March 3, 2004." Dave said, "Well, this isn't much of a will. I told him to go to a lawyer and get a proper will. But he said this would do. Is it any good?" Yes, it was good and Dave inherited about $300,000 with that scrap of paper.

N.R.S. 133.090 states that "A holographic will is a will in which the signature, date and material provisions are written by the hand of the testator, whether or not it is witnessed or notarized...such wills are valid and have the same force and effect as if formally executed."

In addition, I was able to get Dave appointed Executor which meant that he didn't need to work with a Nevada resident Co-Administrator because N.R.S. 138.040 states, "If it appears by the terms of a will that it was the intention of the testator to commit the execution of the will and the administration of the estate of the testator to any person as executor, that person, although not named executor, is entitled to letters testamentary in like manner as if that person had been named executor." In this case the Nevada probate court was willing to accept the inference that John wanted Dave to be the Executor. Note: Normally a lawyer drafted Will naming an Executor will state the Executor may serve without bond. If that language is not in the Will, the Executor will either have to get a bond or run the estate money through the lawyer's trust account.

Of course, this quickie DIY Will might have led to a lot of problems if one of John's relatives had come forward to claim it was a forgery. At the least that would have involved the expense of a handwriting expert to offer an opinion.

If a will does not meet the requirement of a holographic will, or electronic will discussed below, then it must meet the requirements of a formal will, also discussed below. Sometimes wills fail as holographic wills because some material provisions are partly a printed will form and partly handwritten and the will is not properly notarized and witnessed so it doesn't qualify as either a holographic or formal will.

Another example of a valid holographic will from a 2012 Nevada Supreme Court case, Estate of Melton, 128 Nev. 56, 272 P.2d 668 is as follows which was entirely in handwriting:

"Dear Susie,

   I am on the way home from Mom's funeral. Mom died from an auto accident so I thought I had better leave something in writing so that you Alberta Kelleher will receive my entire estate. I do not want my brother Larry J. Melton or Vicki Palm or any of my other relatives to have one penny of my estate. I plan on making a revocable trust at a later date. I think it is the 15 of [M]ay, no calendar. I think it[']s 5:00 AM could be 7:AM in the City of Clinton Oklahoma

Lots of Love


/s/ William E. Melton

AKA Bill Melton

[Social Security number]"

The Nevada Supreme Court held that this was a valid will. And since Alberta Kelleher had predeceased Bill, Bill's entire three million dollar estate went to the State of Nevada since he had disinherited all of his relatives in the same document. Neither the fact that this was written in letter form rather than in will form, nor the fact that the writer talked about making a trust at a later date prevented the Court from finding that this was a valid hand written will. 

Other Problems with DIY or Form Wills:

A common mistake in a DIY Will is that the writer lists his or her then existing assets and does not put in what is called a "residuary clause," which states who gets any property not specifically mentioned in the Will. So the DIY Will may state: "I leave my house at 4 West Oak St. to my brother Bill and my 2012 Cadillac and account at Wells Fargo to my sister Sue and my tool collection to my son Tom." Well, suppose the Will writer later sells his house and buys a new one and ditto for the car. Now brother Bill and sister Sue get nothing and the new car and new house pass under the laws of intestate succession (what happens if there is no Will) so son Tom gets the new house and car. 

With a Will, a specific dollar bequest takes precedence over the residuary clause. Suppose the Will writer has $1,000,000 in assets when he writes his Will. Suppose he writes, "I give $10,000 each to my seven nieces and nephews named here and the rest in equal shares to my three children named here." Suppose that when the Will writer dies his estate is only worth $100,000, not $1,000,000. Now the result will be that 70% ($70,000) goes to his nieces and nephews and only 30% ($30,000) to his children. This was probably not the intended result. 

Formal Wills:

N.R.S. 133.040 sets out Nevada's requirement for all wills that are not holographic or electronic: "No will executed in this valid unless it is in writing and signed by the testator, or by an attending person at the testator's express direction, and attested by at least two competent witnesses who subscribed their names to the will in the presence of the testator."

To avoid future problems, a lawyer who writes a will for a client will have a notary notarize the testator's signature and have the two witnesses give an affidavit which will also be notarized that they witnessed the testator sign the will and the that the testator appeared to be of sound mind and over the age of 18 at the time the testator signed. In fact, N.R.S. 122.050 gives a sample affidavit.

In actual fact, the witnesses could give a Declaration which is a statement under penalty of perjury and thus do away with the need for a notary. However, lawyers almost always have notaries in their office or nearby so the better practice is have all signatures notarized so that if need be the notary can testify in the event someone claims the will is a forgery.

If a will does not qualify as a holographic will and the subscribing witnesses have not given an affidavit or have not given a declaration under penalty of perjury, this defect can be corrected after the testator dies if and only if the subscribing witnesses can be located and are willing to give evidence at that later date. BUT the witnesses giving testimony (such as an affidavit) at a later date can only validate the will if they saw the writer of the will actually sign it. If the will writer signs a will and then takes the signed copy to a person who did not witness him signing it, this witness can NOT validate the will even if the witness can testify that the will writer told the witness he wrote the will and wanted a witness to that fact.

Under the federal constitution every State in the United States is required to give full faith and credit in most matters to actions of other States. As applied to wills this means that if a will was valid in some state other than Nevada when executed, Nevada should accept it as valid even if the will does not comply with Nevada's will requirements. Whether a 1978 will executed in Montana was valid in Montana in 1978 can be proved either with a Montana's lawyer's opinion, or citation to relevant Montana statutes. But this is only necessary if the will does not meet the above Nevada requirement.

Sometimes it happens that the inheritance result and who will serve as executor or administrator will be the same with or without a will. In such a case if there is any question about the will being valid, the heirs can elect to proceed under the intestate statues (the law that says who gets what if there is no will) and not worry about trying to validate the will.

Testator Competence: 

Suppose 90 year old Dad writes a new will on his death bed that disinherits his children in favor of his "girl friend" or disinherits one child in favor of another. Needless to say, wills written in a hospital or other care center, during the will writer's last illness, or favoring a caregiver may be challenged, sometimes successfully. 

In any situation in which the will writer is near the end of his life and caregiver family members are being preferred over non-caregiver family members, or a non-family caregiver is being given substantial sums, or the mental ability of the will writer might be credibly challenged, an attorney should be consulted in detail. As a precaution, the will writer might submit to a psychological exam to protect against future challenges.

Courts do not require a lot of mental ability to write a valid will. However, the subjects of testator competence and the claims of undue influence by the person favored in a will are quite complex. A good probate lawyer should be able to look at a will and immediately know whether it meets the formal requirements for a valid will. But if the question is whether the will can be successfully challenged due to the mental disability of the will writer or the undue influence of a person favored in the will, the answer in many cases may be, "We won't really won't know until we litigate this."

Incidentally, many Courts require a higher degree of mental competence for the writing of a Trust or Trust Amendment. 

Electronic Wills:

N.R.S. 133.085 has some complicated requirements for an electronic will. We don't recommend electronic wills because they haven't been around long enough for courts to elaborate on exactly how the statutory requirements are to be interpreted and in the case of a challenge very probably it would be necessary to hire computer experts to offer opinions on whether the requirements were met. We have never been asked to probate an electronic will.