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Sheila Morris publishes "Hand made: Issues with holograph wills" in The Lawyer's Daily

Feb 26, 2021

Wills and Estates lawyer Sheila Morris' article "Hand made: Issues with holographImage: Sheila Morris - Wills & Estates Lawyer wills" was published in The Lawyer's Daily. In the article she discusses holograph wills, the weight they carry, and how it created a swirl of controversy around the estate of recently deceased talk show host, Larry King.

The article was published on February 25, 2021. To read it in The Lawyer’s Daily, visit: https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/24784/hand-made-issues-with-holograph-wills?category=analysis(subscription required).

Hand made: Issues with holograph wills

A handwritten document has created a swirl of controversy around the estate of recently deceased talk show host, Larry King. The document, known as a holograph will, excludes Shawn King, Larry’s wife of 24 years, from any share in his estate, and instead divides his empire equally between his five children (two of whom died in 2020). King filed for divorce from Shaun King in August 2019, though the divorce was never finalized. Just two months later, in October 2019, King apparently wrote the disputed holographic will. Shaun King is contesting the purported will, which Larry King Jr. submitted to the Los Angeles Superior Court on Feb. 10, 2021.

What is a holographic will?

A holograph will differs from a formal will. A formal will is typed up and signed at the bottom by the testator and two witnesses who are present with the testator at the same time. A holograph will, on the other hand, is simply a handwritten will that is valid without the need for subscribing witnesses.

Consider the will of Cecil Harris, a farmer in Saskatchewan, who was working alone in his field in 1948 and was pinned under his tractor for 10 hours. Sensing his imminent demise, he took out his pen knife and scrawled on the tractor’s fender “In case I die in this mess, I leave all to wife” and signed at the bottom. The Saskatchewan court admitted the fender into probate as a will. Similarly, a 1906 holograph will in England was comprised of just three words: “all for mother.” And, a 1967 holograph will in Germany stated simply “all to wife.”

The will being submitted as King’s holograph will is handwritten, but also appears to bear the signature of two subscribing witnesses. An interesting question for the California court is whether the inclusion of witnesses on a holograph will brings that document under the purview of the legal requirements for a formal will.

Full and final expression of intention

Disputes often arise when holograph wills do not make the testator’s intentions clear. Ontario law requires that a holograph will reflect the testator’s intention that the document is a deliberate “fixed and final disposition,” rather than merely an expression of their wishes. In a 2011 case, Laframboise v. Laframboise 2011 ONSC 7673, the testator titled his document: “The Informal Will and Last Requests of Adam Laframboise.” His surviving wife argued that, based on the words “informal” and “requests,” the absence of an appointment of an estate trustee, and the lack of traditional testamentary language, the document did not demonstrate a fixed and final disposition. The court disagreed, and held that, when read as a whole, the word “informal” simply refers to the will being handwritten, and that the testator’s words are a clear indication of a deliberate, fixed, and final expression of his intention.

King’s handwritten document seems less ambiguous. It identifies itself as a last will and testament that replaces all previous writings. However, the document also seeks to dispose of “100% of my funds,” which may not be a sufficiently clear description of his assets. Disputes can arise when testators refer to things like “all cash on hand,” or “my investments,” because, although that description may make sense to a testator, it is not clearly identifiable to anyone else.

Wholly in testator’s handwriting

To be valid in Ontario, a holographic will must be entirely in the testator’s own handwriting. A will that is partially handwritten, such as a will that is typed with handwritten entries, does not meet this requirement. In such a case, the court may have to decide whether the handwritten portions can be severed or extracted from the typed document, and, if so, whether those portions demonstrate a fixed and final expression of the testator’s wishes.

The document at issue in the King estate is entirely handwritten. The parties may dispute whether it is actually King’s handwriting, which issue could require the opinion of handwriting experts. Immediately following the handwritten document is a document titled “Typed Copy of Last Will & Testament.” The typed copy does not bear any original signatures, and, on its own, would not meet Ontario’s formal requirements for a valid will.  

Signed by the testator

In Ontario, a holographic will must be signed at, after, following, under, beside, or opposite to the end of the will, so that it is clear that the testator intended to give effect to the will by his or her signature. The signature gives effect to any disposition that comes before it; in other words, anything that follows a signature will not take effect. Similarly, any disposition inserted into the will after the testator has signed will be ineffective. If a testator wishes to make revisions to alterations to their holograph will, they must sign beside the revisions.

King’s handwritten document appears to bear his signature at the end of the dispositive provisions and would satisfy Ontario’s criteria regarding the testator’s signature. Again, the authenticity of the signature may be an issue in dispute, the resolution of which could require the opinion of handwriting experts.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether the California court will accept the handwritten document as King’s last will and testament, and whether Shaun King, or anyone else, will challenge the validity of the document on other grounds, such as a lack of testamentary capacity or undue influence. The handwritten document misspells Larry King Jr.’s name as “Lary,” and there are two areas of the document that are illegible or are crossed out. There is potential for costly and lengthy litigation to ensue, as it has in so many other cases of holograph wills. While preparing your own will cuts expense in the short term, in the end, it might instead just be a cheap route to costly litigation.

If you have any questions regarding this article, estate litigation, or estate planning contact estate litigator Sheila Morris at smorris@mindengross.com.

Re-printed with permission from The Lawyer's Daily - originally published on February 25, 2021 (subscription required).