A last minute will can result in many problems for the estate

A recent story published in the Topeka Capital Journal (cjonline.com) illustrates the dangers of last minute will changes. The full story can be found here.

The story is about a Kansas man named Earl O. Field, whose will was allegedly changed before his death on February 19, 2013. At issue is the distribution of his $20.6 million estate. Allegedly, a letter dated January 23, 2013 was typed on Mr. Field’s letterhead shortly before his death, which drastically altered the way the $20.6 million were to be allocated. Mr. Field’s part-time caregiver and bookkeeper, Wanda Oborny, found the letter in his office on the evening of his death. The Fort Hays State University Foundation was removed as the primary beneficiary. The letter left half the estate to Ms. Oborny, a quarter to Mr. Field’s lawyer, Joseph Jeter, and a quarter to the foundation.

The foundation’s position is that the letter is fake. They allege that ten days before Mr. Field’s death, he was visited by the school president at the time, and assured him that nothing had changed in the estate plan. The letter was not signed.

The alleged changes to the estate plan were obviously significant. The matter is further complicated by the alleged signing of an additional document related to the above changes. A friend of Mr. Oborny’s named Steve Little had called Mr. Jeter to tell him that Mr. Field had asked him and his wife to witness the signing of another document dated January 22, 2013 describing the same allocation of the estate as the one in the letter dated January 23, 2013. In their depositions Mr. and Mrs. Little state that Mr. Field signed the document dated January 22, 2013 and they signed as witnesses. It is alleged that Mr. Field wanted to keep this allocation a secret and to surprise Ms. Oborny.

None of the above allegations have been proven in Court.

What is somewhat disconcerting about the above scenario is that Mr. and Mrs. Little died in a murder-suicide. They were the witnesses who could verify that Mr. Field signed the document dated January 22, 2013 varying his estate plan, and thereby modifying the the distribution of his assets. As the testator and the witnesses are all deceased, it will be difficult ascertain the true intentions of Mr. Field.

This is a scenario where a will challenge on behalf of the foundation may be appropriate. At a minimum, it appears that the formalities required for a valid will have not been satisfied. Furthermore, there are several documents with different dates, signed and unsigned, providing conflicting instructions as to the distribution of the assets. The amount of money at stake is significant. The foundation also appears convinced that Mr. Field did not intend to modify his will.

This scenario confirms that a last minute will change can result in significant legal costs and estate litigation. Even if Mr. Field intended to make Ms. Oborny as surprise beneficiary, a testator in his position must remember that other beneficiaries are also going to be surprised, but negatively.

Any “surprise” last minute will changes built in to an estate plan should be thoroughly documented and witnessed to ensure that beneficiaries receiving less are not in a position to refute the changes. Last minute will changes can result in significant controversy and delay in the distribution of the estate.

If you believe you have been disinherited as a result of last minute will changes, it is important to consult an estate lawyer to ensure your rights are protected.