A recent and riveting development has just unfolded in the lives of some of the cast of Netflix’s popular docuseries, ‘Tiger King’. It has been discovered (and confirmed by two separate forensic experts) that the Will of Carol Baskin’s late husband, Don Lewis, was a complete forgery.
I was recently reminded of the importance of having a valid and up to date Will.
A colleague and I received instructions from the son of one of our clients, who had terminal cancer. The matter was urgent as his father did not have a Will and his Estate would have had to be distributed between him and his mother (pursuant to the laws of intestacy).
I migrated from South Africa to Australia and have been in Perth for a little over a year. I am therefore aware of the stress and planning of migration and I also know that certain things do not make the priority list. One being, finding out if the Will that you made elsewhere is enforceable in Western Australia, or if you need a new Will.
You may have read some of our other recent blogs about how to sign your Will during COVID-19, when to review your Will, and the importance of having a valid Enduring Power of Attorney and Enduring Power of Guardianship.
Avoid legal limbo - create a valid will
The Public Trustee has revealed that 50 per cent of Western Australians over 40 do not have a valid will. With litigation regarding wills increasing in Australia, it’s become more important than ever to create a valid will using a suitably qualified, experienced solicitor.
In a recent Supreme Court Decision, Kenneth Martin J made the remark that society as a whole simply do not appreciate the importance of having a valid, up to date Will.
He stated that:
“Wider public educational efforts should be made to advance the general state of knowledge of the community on these matters, in my respectful view. This is an age where people outlay significant amounts on a regular basis to update their phones - so they are equipped with the latest technology. But a small outlay to correctly execute a will to secure potential benefits for loved ones and dependants should be an elevated priority. A person's last will is perhaps the most important document that they will ever sign in their lifetime. The long-term worth of leaving a valid will always exceeds the cost of a new electronic device.”
There are some things in life that are just so much better when they’re homemade. Like Mum’s secret recipe sponge cake with fresh strawberries. A hand knitted beanie. Or even a handmade birthday card from your 5 year old niece. But then there are some things that are just better left to the professionals.
Why is it that we’re more willing to let the experts take the reins on some things than others? I wouldn’t try to replace the chipped windscreen in my car, because I don’t have the tools or the skills to do it right – and if I don’t get it right the risk is that I will hurt myself (or even worse, someone else) and end up costing myself a lot more money than I would have forked out if I’d just left the job to the right people in the first place.
Whilst the plaintiff questioned whether the gift to Katherine was dependant or conditional on her being the de facto of the deceased at the date of his death, one of the defendants argued that the phrase, “my de facto wife” was merely descriptive and should be ignored.
The Court held that the Will is said to speak from the date of death. The Court reasoned that because Katherine was no longer in a de facto relationship with the deceased at the date of death, the intended disposition of his estate to Katherine should fail.
So, what do we, as practitioners, consider when drafting Wills for our clients? Are we doing our clients a disservice by describing the relationship of a beneficiary to the client without more? For instance, if a bequest is made to a friend,Joe Blow, of the client, and at the time of death, Joe Blow is no longer a friend of the client, then would the gift to the estranged friend fail? Was it the client’s intent that Joe Blow remained his friend in order to receive the gift? And more importantly, how could one prove that the relationship was no longer amicable?
I suppose if the description of a relationship to the client is just that…a description, then a bequest should remain valid. On the other hand, if it is the intention of the client to only benefit a particular person if he/she remains in the relationship described, then probably the best practice is to clearly state such an intention in the Will as a condition precedent to receiving the gift.
There is no single right or wrong, one-size-fits-all recommendation for everyone, but there are some useful questions you can ask yourself when thinking about who would be the right Executor for your Estate. Some of these questions are:
- Whom do I trust?
- Who would be equipped to make sensible, rational and fair decisions after my death?
- Who would be willing and able to take on the job, and could stand up to any pressure from my beneficiaries?
- Where does this person live, and how difficult would it be for them to act in the role?
- How old is this person, and are they likely to survive me or to be fit enough to do whatever is required?
- Has this person ever been bankrupt, or do they have a criminal background?
- Does this person have a parent or spouse (or anyone else in their life) who could influence them to make decisions in a certain way in the course of administering my Estate?
- How “messy” or complicated is the administration of my Estate likely to be?
- Should I appoint more than one person? If I do this, what do I want to happen if these people don’t get along, or can’t agree on something?
- Should I nominate a professional person or trustee company, knowing that this might come at a cost to my Estate, and might be disempowering for the loved ones I leave behind?
- Should I nominate a substitute Executor in the event that my first choice is unable or unwilling to act as my Executor?
If you anticipate that there is the potential for a claim against your Estate by a disgruntled beneficiary, you might not want to nominate that particular person (or any other beneficiary named in your Will) as your Executor. For example, if you want to leave your entire Estate to charity, rather than to your children, you might think twice about appointing your child as your Executor.
Every person (and every Estate) is different, so of course this cannot be an exhaustive list of things to think about when choosing your Executor. We encourage you to turn your mind to what is important to you, and what you wish for your loved ones after you’re gone.
But it was established to the satisfaction of the Court that the 2009 Will had been signed at a time when the testator had already lost testamentary capacity due to certain delusional beliefs which she held. Accordingly, the Court decided the 2009 Will had no effect. That meant that the revocation of the 2006 Will was also ineffective. So the 2006 Will was rescued from its dusty grave, and was duly admitted to Probate. The case also demonstrates that in deciding which Will is valid, the Court makes up its own mind based on the evidence before it and does not simply follow any agreement reached by the parties.
In Williams v Schwarzback the question of which Will was valid was initially hotly contested; at a mediation the parties agreed that the 2006 was the valid Will. But the Court only decided in favour of the 2006 Will when it was satisfied that the 2009 Will was invalid. It did not simply rubber stamp the agreement of the parties, who had to put the necessary evidence of the testator’s delusions before the Court. This is an illustration of the rule that in contested Probate disputes one cannot simply get judgment by consent, even if the parties ultimately settle their differences.
Finally, it is good practice for testators, when they sign a Will, to write ‘revoked by Will dated….’ across the earlier Will; this practice helps to minimise confusion as to the status of the earlier Will. If the later Will is found to be invalid, the revocation is also invalid and the earlier Will is available to be admitted to Probate. The earlier Will may also be relevant if Family Provision proceedings are brought, even if the later Will is valid. So, as you can appreciate, at least in Probate matters, there can be life after death.
Should Accountants be Drafting Wills?
What do you do when a client asks you to draft his/her Will?
If you’re an Accountant, Financial Planner, or a professional other than a Legal Practitioner, have you ever been asked to draft a Will for your client?
Whilst the temptation to be holistic in your services to a client is understandable, this article will offer some guidance, and identify the pitfalls of engaging in a legal practice which could contravene the requirements under the Legal Practice Act 2008 (“the Act”).