The Presumption of Due Execution:The Importance of an Attorney-supervised Will Execution Ceremony

In a contested probate proceeding, proponents of the Last Will and Testament being offered for probate must submit evidence establishing a prima facie case for probate.  Those who object to the probate must raise a material issue of fact.  One such challenge concerns the due execution of the Will.

These days, there are any number of websites that can be used to create generic Last Wills and Testaments.   While these options may seem more cost-effective than hiring an attorney to draft a Will, in the end they may prove to be very costly options, especially in those cases where there is a Will contest.  In addition to not having the benefit of the advice of an attorney knowledgeable in New York’s Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law for the preparation of this very important document, a person availing himself/herself of these low-cost options also deprives himself/herself of something invaluable:  the presumption of due execution.

How does this work in practice?  When an attorney drafts a Will, s/he will then arrange for a Will execution ceremony with the testator and the attesting witnesses present.  The attorney not only supervises the Will execution, but explains the legal significance ceremony to the attesting witnesses and asks the testator certain questions in front of the witnesses to ascertain certain facts being attested to by the witnesses and to establish the publication requirement.  Where the execution ceremony of a Will is supervised by the attorney who drafted the Will, the presumption of due execution exists.

The presumption of due execution creates a significant deterrent to someone who contest a Will offered to probate. In Matter of Leach, 3 AD3d 763, 764 (2004), the testator had a brother with whom he was not close.  The testator, perhaps anticipating a Will contest, hired an attorney to draft his Will. As part of his regular preparation for the drafting and execution of a Will, the attorney whom the testator retained gathered information about  the testator’s family, his assets, and how he wanted to dispose of those assets

When the testator died and his Will was offered for probate, his brother contested the probate alleging, among other things, a lack of due execution.   Both witnesses, the attorney who drafted the Will, and his secretary were deposed.  The attorney testified as to as to his usual routine for the preparation and execution of a Will, and to the facts and circumstances surrounding the execution of the Will.  The Surrogate’s Court of Chenango County admitted the Will to probate, and the brother appealed.

The Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed the Surrogate’s Court’s ruling because, among other things, the petitioner had met her burden of proof of due execution;  “When an attorney drafts a will and supervises its execution, a presumption of regularity is raised that the will was properly executed.”   Because the Will had been drafted by the attorney who then supervised its execution, the presumption of due execution existed and the petition was able to meet her burden of proof on the issue of due execution.  The burden of proof then shifted to the respondent to produce admissible evidence creating a triable issue of fact.  Arguments are not enough to meet this burden of proof.

Will contests are an expensive proposition for those offering a Will to probate.  When a Will is not prepared by an attorney and that attorney does not supervise its execution, then that Will does not carry with it the presumption of due execution.  Hiring an attorney to draft this exceedingly important document may just be the wisest expenditure that you can make.  You will ensure that those left behind have the the presumption of due execution in their arsenal should they need to defend your Last Will and Testament.

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