A last will and testament is just one document that may govern the disposition of property after your death. Many married couples sign a prenuptial (or antenuptial) agreement that can also affect estate planning. For example, spouses may agree to waive any future claim on each other’s estate. This may be useful in cases where a spouse wants to leave part of his or her estate to children from a prior marriage.
But if documents are poorly or incompletely drafted, legal confusion may frustrate your objectives. A recent decision by an appeals court in Mississippi illustrates what can go wrong when a will says one thing, but other documents say something else.
Dixon v. Jones
Johnnie Lee Jones married Annie Ruth Jones in 1997. Johnnie Lee Jones owned a home in Jackson, Mississippi, and had a daughter from a prior relationship, Bonnie Dixon. Jones and his new bride signed a prenuptial agreement acknowledging that upon Johnnie Lee’s death, his Jackson home would go to Dixon.
One year later, however, Jones signed a last will and testament. The will provided Annie Jones with a life estate in the Jackson home. That meant she could continue to live there after his death until her death, at which time the property would go to Johnnie Lee Jones’ sister, not his daughter. The will contained a standard clause revoking “any and all previous wills and/or testaments.”
Seven years after signing the will, Jones apparently changed his mind again about the house. He signed a quitclaim deed transferring the Jackson property to himself and Dixon as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship,” meaning Dixon would own the property outright upon her father’s death.
Jones died in 2011. Given the contradictory documents signed by Jones during his lifetime, it was no surprise when his widow and daughter went to court to settle ownership of the Jackson property. Anne Jones cited the 1998 will. Dixon cited the 1997 prenuptial agreement and the 2005 quitclaim deed. A Mississippi probate judge ultimately ruled for Mrs. Jones, and the state’s court of appeals agreed with that decision.
As far as the Mississippi courts were concerned, the will overruled the prenuptial agreement, which it deemed a “testament” revoked by Jones. It did not matter that Anne Jones signed the agreement waiving her rights to the property. As for the quitclaim deed, it was not legal under Mississippi law. While Johnnie Lee Jones signed the deed, his wife did not. Even though she did not own the property, her signature was still required because of how Mississippi determines whether property enjoys a homestead exemption from local taxes. Since the deed was invalid, the will still governed the disposition of the property.
Avoiding Future Conflicts
Every state has its own laws governing probate and real property, so the Mississippi case does not provide a road map for how to handle this type of situation in California. Nevertheless, the lesson here is applicable regardless of jurisdiction. If you decide to make significant changes in the disposition of your property, it is important you work with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can help you avoid the type of conflicts that could end up thwarting your intentions. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.