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Can a Probate Court Admit an Earlier Version of My Will?

Signing a last will and testament is often not a one-time affair. You may in fact execute several wills over the course of your lifetime. While a “last” will usually refers to the document signed most recently before your death, there are occasions when a California probate court may find good cause to admit an earlier will.

Judge Nullifies Will Favoring Stepdaughter Over Biological Children

For example, in a recent case from Los Angeles, a state appeals court upheld a probate judge’s decision to admit a decedent’s next-to-last will over his last will. The probate court found the last will was the product of undue influence but the previous will was not. The court therefore admitted that will to probate over the objections of the decedent’s children.

As is often the case with will contests, the dispute here centered on the decedent’s remarriage. The decedent initially signed a will in 1970 leaving his entire estate to his first wife; if she did not survive him, the estate was to be divided equally between the couple’s four children. But after the wife died in 1999, the husband subsequently remarried and decided to rewrite his estate plan to provide for his new spouse.

In 2006, when the decedent was 88 years old, he signed a holographic (handwritten) will giving his second wife a life estate in the couple’s home. Upon her death, the house would go in equal shares to the husband’s four children, as well as the wife’s daughter from a prior marriage. The following year, 2007, the husband signed another holographic will that granted the life estate to both the second wife and his stepdaughter. In other words, the decedent’s children would not receive ownership of the house until after both their stepmother and her daughter passed away.

The husband died less than two weeks after purportedly signing this final will. His children then contested their stepmother’s attempt to probate the 2007 will. The children argued the stepmother had illegally exerted “undue influence” over their father in procuring his signature on both the 2006 and 2007 wills. In short, they accused of her of being a gold digger who manipulated their father into marrying her “for immigration purposes.”

The probate court ended up ruling partially in the children’s favor. The court determined the 2007 will was the product of undue influence, given that it granted the step-daughter a life estate in the decedent’s home. The judge said, “Favoring a step-daughter over natural children and grandchildren is not natural,” and marked a noted departure from the husband’s estate planning since 1970, which determined his estate should go to his children after he and his wife passed. However, the probate court similarly found the 2006 will was not the product of undue influence, but rather it was consistent with the decedent’s “natural” desire to ensure his second wife—who would “be without a house” after her husband’s death—was provided for.

The stepmother and the children both appealed the probate judge’s decision, but the Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles declined to alter the ruling.

Need Help Making a New Will?

Amending or changing your will after a remarriage, or a similar life-altering event, can lead to acrimony among family members. That is why you should never attempt to rewrite your will on your own, but instead seek assistance from an experienced San Diego estate planning lawyer. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you need help with your estate planning.

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