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Unintended Consequences from the Case of the Missing Will

Ali Katz


Even the best intentions can have unintended consequences when it comes to estate planning.  A case now winding its way through the New York appellate court system provides a cautionary tale when it comes to the safekeeping of your estate planning documents.

According to a recent news report, Robyn Lewis and James Simmons divorced in 2007 in Texas.  During their marriage, they had executed “mirror” wills, with each leaving the other his or her entire estate.  In her mirror will, Robyn stated that if James died first, her father-in-law would serve as the executor and sole heir of her estate.

The 2007 divorce effectively cancelled the wills made during the marriage.  As part of the divorce decree, James received property owned by the couple in Texas and Robyn received property in New York that the couple had purchased from her family.

Robyn then moved to her New York property and executed a new will naming her two brothers as her heirs.  She gave the new will to a neighbor for safekeeping.  Sadly, Robyn died in 2010 at the age of 43.  When her family could not locate any will, the brothers petitioned for and received Letters of Administration to serve as executors and beneficiaries of Robyn’s estate.

Shortly thereafter, James did a Google search for Robyn and was surprised to learn she had died.  James notified his father, who then dug up a copy of Robyn’s original will and petitioned a New York court to be named executor and sole heir as was provided for in the original will.

Robyn’s family sought to invalidate this request based on the second will that had been given to -- and lost by -- her neighbor.  Although the neighbor testified to the existence of the will, the inability to produce it or to even remember the name of the attorney or witnesses on the document led the court to revoke the brothers’ Letters of Administration and allow the Texas will to stand.  Robyn’s family has filed an appeal, which will be heard in late March by the New York Court of Appeals.

The lesson here is clear:  you must keep your estate planning documents in a place that can be found by your family or it’s as if they never existed at all.  And this is where we can help.  We are different from most estate planning attorneys in that we foster a lifetime relationship with the families we serve.  This relationship includes regular estate plan reviews to reflect any changes in your life and changes in the law.  We also help you transfer more than just your personal assets to your loved ones through our Legacy Planning process.

The best way to learn about protecting your family is to talk with a Personal Family Lawyer®about a Family Wealth Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you to provide for and protect the financial security of your loved ones.