An Unsigned Will Found to Be Invalid in New Jersey

It is important to understand the correct procedure for creating a valid Last Will and Testament if your final wishes are to be carried out.  In order for a Will to be valid in New Jersey, it must be written and signed by the decedent and two witnesses.  When a Will is not prepared carefully and in conformance with the requirements under the law, estate matters can quickly become complicated. An example of this was recently reported by the New Jersey Appellate Division in the Estate of Daniel J. Russomanno.

After the decedent’s death in January 2019, his children disagreed about how their father’s estate should be handled. They both confirm that up to 2012, the decedent intended and made it known that he wished to divide his estate evenly between the two children.

However, in 2012, the decedent decided he would prepare a Will whereby his house would be left to his son, and his daughter would receive a $20,000 bequest. The rest of the estate was to be divided equally between the two siblings. Although the decedent met with an attorney and the initial fee was paid, there is no proof that the Will was ever signed. The lawyer working with the decedent confirmed that the decedent failed to contact him to execute the Will, and the lawyer eventually closed his file in early 2013.

The daughter filed a Complaint, arguing that the decedent had died intestate (without a Will) and that the estate should be divided equally under the intestacy laws of New Jersey. She then requested that letters of administration be issued to her so she could administer the estate and distribute the intestate shares equally.

In response to this, the decedent’s son filed a counterclaim, arguing that an unsigned copy of his father’s Will should be admitted to probate as valid. The son claimed that his father gave him an envelope that was believed to be the executed Will in 2013. However, the son never opened the envelope to confirm, and the document was lost in a flood years later. The son presented witnesses from his father’s life who confirmed that as they were aware the decedent intended to give his house to his son. However, without proof that the fully executed Will ever existed, the trial court refused to consider it valid.

When the son appealed that decision, the Appellate Court upheld the trial court decision because the son was not relying on concrete evidence, but merely on conversations he and others had with his father. Simply, the Will he offered was never signed and therefore was not valid. For this reason, it was found that the decedent died intestate and his estate should be distributed equally between the brother and sister.

This is a prime example of what can happen if your estate planning is not performed correctly or is never finalized. Without a validly executed Last Will and Testament, a Court will not guess as to what your final wishes are.  You must put those wishes into writing and execute a proper Will if you want your wishes carried out.

If you have any further questions about the drafting of a valid Will or estate planning in general, please contact Ward, Shindle & Hall.