Voiding Gifts in a Nonconforming Will

By:Jeffrey K. Lewis, Attorney and Research Specialist, Agricultural & Resource Law Friday, January 08th, 2021
Last Will and Testament

Do you have a will? Was your will executed formally? Do your parents have a will? Was their will executed in accordance with Ohio’s laws? What happens if your parent’s friend claims they are entitled to a portion of your parent’s estate because they have a handwritten note saying as much? Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court decided a case to help clarify Ohio’s laws regarding will execution.

In re Estate of Shaffer

Dr. Joseph Shaffer – a psychologist and part owner of successful sleep clinics – executed a formal will in 1967. Dr. Shaffer’s formal will instructed that if his wife were to pass away before him, his estate would pass through trust to his two sons. Dr. Shaffer’s wife, unfortunately, did pass away before him. On July 20, 2015, Dr. Shaffer also passed away. Dr. Shaffer’s formally executed will was admitted into probate in 2015. 

In January 2016, Juley Norman – a friend and caretaker of Dr. Shaffer – filed a creditor’s claim against Dr. Shaffer’s estate claiming that she was entitled to a portion of his estate because of the care and services she provided to Dr. Shaffer before the end of his life. Ms. Norman attached a copy of a handwritten 3x5 notecard signed by Dr. Shaffer in 2006.  No signatures other than Dr. Shaffer’s were present on the notecard, which read: 

Dec 22, 2006
My estate is not 
completely settled 
all of my sleep network
stock is to go to 
Terry Shaffer
Juley Norman for 
her care of me is to
receive 1/4 of my estate
Terry is to be the
executor. 
This is my will. 
[signed by Dr. Shaffer]

 

Zachary Norman, Juley’s son, filed an application asking the probate court to treat the notecard as a will and recognize his mother as a will beneficiary. At an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the notecard should be admitted as Shaffer’s will, Norman testified about her close relationship with Shaffer and the circumstances surrounding the notecard.  She stated that only she and her son witnessed Shaffer write and sign the notecard and that Shaffer directed her son to keep it in a safe place.  The probate court held, however, that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the notecard was intended to be Shaffer’s will.

Ohio's Sixth District Court of Appeals disagreed, overruling the probate court and allowing Juley to be added to the list of beneficiaries of Dr. Shaffer’s Estate.  Dr. Shaffer’s son sought the Ohio Supreme Court’s discretionary review of the matter after the appellate court’s reversal. 

In reaching its unanimous decision to reverse the court of appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court analyzed the relationships between three Ohio laws, as follows:

ORC § 2107.03 – Formal Will Making Requirements

Ohio law states that a document admitted to probate as a formal will must meet be:

  1. In writing; 
  2. Signed at the end by the testator (or in some circumstances someone else at the testator’s direction); and
  3. Attested to and subscribed to by two or more competent witnesses who saw the testator sign the will. 

The Ohio Supreme Court confirmed both lower courts’ decisions that Dr. Shaffer’s notecard cannot be considered a formal will. No witness signatures were present on the notecard and thus the only way to admit Dr. Shaffer’s will is through an exception in Ohio’s laws regarding will making formalities.  

ORC § 2107.24 – Exception to the Formal Will Making Requirements

R.C. § 2107.24 provides a narrow exception to the formalities required in R.C. § 2107.03 and recognizes a will even though no witness has signed the purported will. A probate court must hold a hearing to examine whether an advocate of the nonconforming document establishes by clear and convincing evidence that: 

  1. The decedent prepared the document or caused the document to be prepared; 
  2. The decedent signed the document and intended the document to constitute the decedent’s will; and 
  3. The decedent signed the document in the conscious presence of two or more witnesses. 

This statute is central to the issue between the Normans and the Shaffers. The Ohio Supreme Court found that under this law, the court’s role is to determine whether a document should be admitted to probate, not to determine the validity of the will’s contents. Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the probate court should have admitted the will into probate based on the above requirements. Even though the specific bequests contained within the will may be stricken once the will is admitted, the 2107.24 evidentiary hearing is not the proper mechanism to determine the validity of the contents of the will. 

However, the Ohio Supreme Court also analyzed Ohio’s “Voiding Statute” which eliminates any specific bequests to an interested witness to the will. 

ORC § 2107.15 the “Voiding Statute”

Ohio’s “voiding statute” states that if a devise or bequest is made to a person who is one of only two witnesses to a will, the devise or bequest is void automatically. The witness, however, will be able to testify to the execution of the will, as if the specific devise or bequest to that witness had not been made. 

Essentially, if a witness stands to take a portion of a testator’s estate under a will and if the validity of that will hinges on that witness acting as one of the two essential witnesses necessary to create a valid will, then that person’s interest under the will is void as a matter of law. This law does not control whether someone is competent to be a witness in order to establish a valid will, it only governs whether a devise or bequest in an already admitted will is valid. Therefore, this law comes into effect only after a will is determined to be valid and is admitted to probate. 

The Ohio Supreme Court found that the voiding statute applies to witnesses under both R.C. § 2107.03 and § 2107.24. The Court held that Juley Norman could not take ¼ of Dr. Shaffer’s estate because she is one of the two witnesses required to establish a valid will, and thus Dr. Shaffer’s devise to her is void. 

Conclusion 

Sadly, Dr. Shaffer is no longer with us to tell the Ohio Supreme Court what his wishes were. The only people who can testify to the validity of the notecard stand to gain something from that notecard being admitted to probate. Dr. Shaffer may have intended to provide Juley with 1/4 of his estate, but he did not take the legal steps necessary to ensure that Juley would be a beneficiary of the will.   Historically, others in Juley’s position have not been honest when it comes to claiming an interest in someone’s estate, which is why the law prohibits witnesses from also being beneficiaries of the will.

The Shaffer case illustrates why it is important to consult with an attorney to ensure that your wishes will be carried out as you intend and your estate plan is in order.  If you want to change your will, an attorney will ensure that the new provisions are in accordance with Ohio law.  Doing so can keep your family and friends out of court.

Useful links: The Ohio Supreme Court's slip opinion In re Estate of Shaffer