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The Holidays And The Gift Of Family Harmony: The Importance Of Proper Estate Planning To Avoid Litigation After Your Passing

This year, when many will not be able to spend the holidays with loved ones because of COVID-19 fears or restrictions, the thoughts and memories of family gatherings at the holidays will likely bring both joy and sadness.  Not all families, however, associate the holidays with harmonious family gatherings.  In recent years, the litigators at our firm have seen an increasing amount of litigation cases resulting from poor or no estate planning.  Many times, the litigation is between siblings that have never gotten along, and once their parents pass away, they are left with no one to try and keep the peace between them.  Sometimes, however, the parents did something, or did not do something, that leads to disputes between family members at the passing of the second to die parent.

Many people forego proper estate planning because of the perceived cost of having an attorney prepare the documents, and the proliferation of online websites offering low-cost, do it yourself estate planning. Others simply don’t want to face their own mortality and engage in the process. This can, however, lead to costly litigation and unintended consequences.

Americans are fascinated with celebrities, and despite their fame and fortune, there are many examples of contested litigation after their passing. Some notable examples of these celebrity estate disputes over the years include: Casey Kasem, Anna Nicole Smith and the Estate of J. Howard Marshall II, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Clancy, James Brown, Tony Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and. Kurt Cobain. More recently, disputes have arisen in the estate of the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, whose situation provides a cautionary tale for those inclined to avoid estate planning, or to prepare documents themselves.

Everyone knows the iconic lyrics to Ms. Franklin’s song “Respect”: “What you want, baby, I got it. What you need, do you know I got it?…. I’m about to give you all of my money; and all I’m askin’ in return, honey….”  Unfortunately, the disposition of all of her money at her death is in limbo, and the Queen of Soul’s actual wishes may be known, but not followed.

On August 16, 2018, it appeared that Ms. Franklin died without a will to govern disposition of assets at her death.  Her four sons expected that her estate would be split evenly between each of them under Michigan’s laws of intestacy, which is the statutory disposition of assets when someone dies without a will.  In 2019, however, Ms. Franklin’s longtime attorneys disclosed the discovery and existence of several handwritten wills, found in one of her homes.  These documents were only signed by her, and contained notes in the margins, or delineations, and crossed out words and provisions.

This surprising turn of events shook up the administration of Ms. Franklin’s estate and pitted family against one another in court.  A Petition for Instructions on Validity and Admission of a Purported Holographic Will was filed on May 20, 2019 submitting three holographic wills to the probate court.[1]  This left it up to the probate court to decide whether these alleged handwritten wills, that contradicted each other, referred to in the legal community as “holographic wills”, are valid and control the disposition of Ms. Franklin’s estate.

In Maryland, the handwritten documents would be held invalid and Ms. Franklin’s estate would be distributed under the laws of intestacy and divided equally among her four sons.[2] This is because Maryland, unlike Michigan, only recognizes holographic wills under extremely limited circumstances, and offers none of the flexibility built into Ms. Franklins home state of Michigan. Maryland only recognizes holographic wills of a Maryland domiciled decedent the armed services and sign the holographic will outside of the U.S., D.C., or any U.S. territory.[3] Even if this limited exception is met, the holographic will is automatically voided one year after the testator is discharged from the armed forces, further limiting its control of the decedent’s estate.[4] To be valid under Maryland law a will must meet the following requirements to be valid: (1) In writing; (2) Signed by the testator, or by some other person for the testator, in the testator’s presence and by the testator’s express direction; and (3) Attested and signed by two or more credible witnesses in the presence of the testator.[5]  These statutory requirements are strictly construed.  For example, a will signed by the testator and witnessed by only one witness, even if that witness is a notary public, is invalid. The only exceptions under Maryland law are, as noted above a valid holographic will, or a will executed by the testator or testatrix in conformance of the laws of their prior place of domicile or where they were physically located when the will was signed.

Michigan, however, has a much broader definition and acceptance of holographic wills. Under Michigan law, such a document is valid “whether or not witnessed, if it is dated, and if the testator’s signature and the document’s material portions are in the testator’s handwriting.”[6] Under Michigan law, extrinsic evidence, outside the four corners of the document and parts of the document not in the testator’s handwriting, is also admissible to prove their intent. Under Maryland law, absent a latent ambiguity[7] in the document, extrinsic evidence is not admissible to prove the testator or testatrix’s intent.

Ms. Franklin, as could many others who die with no will or documents they prepared themselves, could have saved her family the time and expense of protracted probate and litigation if she had proper estate planning in place. The well-known idiom, you get what you pay for, certainly applies in this situation.  The one-size fits all product that has you input information into a computer and spits out a resulting document, may work in some instances, but the lack of personal touch, especially the ability to delve deeper into your specific family situation and needs, can result in a document that fails to address your needs. Similarly, trying to create a legal document by using a sample form you pulled up on the internet, may result in a document that is deemed invalid, or leads to more questions than answers.

The best way to try to ensure that your wishes are followed at your passing, and to try to promote family harmony, is to meet with an attorney and have proper estate planning in place.  Even if the family members don’t see eye to eye on matters, having documents in place that are clear and concise, and in accordance with Maryland law, can help mitigate potential issues and litigation.

[1] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6020063-TYPED-PAGES-Aretha-Franklin-Will.html.

[2] Md. Code Est. & Truss § 3-101 and 3-103.

[3] Md. Code Est. & Trusts § 4-103(a).

[4] Md. Code Est. & Trusts § 4-103(b).

[5]Md. Code Est. & Trusts § 4-102.

[6] http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(etgxewgcsge5jiql154uslgh))/mileg.aspx?page=getobject&objectname=mcl-700-2502.

[7] A latent ambiguity arises when the language at issue is clear on its face but upon introduction of extrinsic evidence, it reveals multiple interpretations. For example, a will that leaves assets to John Smith, could refer to multiple individuals known by the testator or testatrix, which would require introduction of extrinsic evidence to reveal this ambiguity and to help sort out their intent as to which John Smith is referred to in the document.

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