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California Court Rejects Improperly Witnessed Will of Man Found in Apartment Wall

Truth is often stranger than fiction when it comes to California probate cases. In May a state appeals court ruled on a particularly strange case involving a contested last will and testament. The case started with the 2004 disappearance of a Berkeley man who was found more than four years later stuffed into the wall of his own apartment building.

The man was Taruk Joseph Ben-Ali. Taruk’s father, Hassan Ben-Ali, was a real estate investor who owned and operated a number of properties. In 1993, Hassan transferred title to an apartment building on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley to his son (apparently due to Hassan’s failure of losing the property due to unpaid federal taxes). Hassan continued to manage the building even after transferring legal title to his son.

On August 3, 2002, Taruk married Wendelyn Wilburn over his father’s strenuous objections. In June 2004, Wilburn was in Las Vegas on business. She attempted to call her husband back in California but could not reach him. Subsequently, Hassan told Wilburn that Taruk had left her to “start a new life somewhere else,” according to court records. Taruk was never reported missing and Hassan continued to manage the Asbury Avenue building.

In late 2008, Hassan revealed to his attorney, Ivan Golde, that in fact Taruk died from a drug overdose in 2004. Hassan discovered his son’s body in a hotel room. Because Hassan did not want to lose control of the apartment building to Wilburn–who would inherit Taruk’s estate if he died without a will–he hid the body in the wall of storage area in the Asbury Avenue building. A person who assisted Hassan was now attempting to extort money from him, prompting this confession to the attorney. Shortly thereafter, Hassan committed suicide. Police obtained a search warrant for the building and discovered Taruk’s remains.

A Suspicious Will
The police search of Hassan’s apartment revealed a document purporting to be Taruk’s last will and testament. It was dated August 16, 2002–two weeks after his marriage and just before he went on his honeymoon–and left his unnamed “wife” all his personal property with the remainder of his assets, including the apartment building, to Hassan. The will further named Hassan as executor and his attorney Golde as alternate.

Of critical interest was the attestation. Under California law, a will must normally be witnessed by two people in the presence of the person making the will, who must declare that the document they are signing is in fact his last will and testament. The attestation for Taruk’s alleged will included the signature of “Wendy Ben-Ali” and a second person whose writing was illegible. While Wendy Ben-Ali apparently refers to Taruk’s wife, Wendelyn Wilburn, she later testified that she normally did not use her husband’s surname following their marriage. The second witness has never been identified.

Golde, as the named alternate executor, petitioned the probate court to admit the will. Wilburn filed her own petition to be be appointed administrator of the estate on the grounds that the will was not valid and her husband died intestate. The probate judge ultimately found that both signatures were valid and ordered the will admitted. Wilburn and Brittany Desmond, Taruk’s daughter from a prior marriage who is also an heir to his estate, appealed. Golde and Ann Jackson, Hassan’s ex-wife and the sole beneficiary of his estate, opposed the appeal.

Unlike the trial court, the appeals court determined Taruk’s alleged will was never properly executed. A will is presumed to be properly executed in California if the signature of the testator and both witnesses are valid. In this case, the probate court only found the signatures of Taruk and his wife were valid. The second witness couldn’t even be identified. Thus, the probate court erred in admitting the will.

The appeals court went on to explain that “no reasonable trier of fact” could look at this situation and presume Taruk’s will was genuine. Among the problems noted by the court was that Hassan had a documented history of forging his son’s name, the will itself was not found among Taruk’s possessions, and of course, the fact Hassan hid his son’s body in a wall and concealed his death for more than four years.

Make Sure Your Will Is In Order
While this is a highly unusual case, the legal lessons here are fairly simple. A valid will requires two witnesses. The witnesses should write legibly and should also print their name and, where possible, provide a current address so they can be located at a later date. And once you’ve executed a valid will, make sure to keep it in a secure location where your executor or attorney can find it after your death. As always, you should work with a qualified San Diego estate planning attorney who can help you avoid any potential legal pitfalls. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego if you have any questions or concerns.

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