In re Estate of Burton: Formalities count when executing a will
This is my site Written by CPorterEsq on September 15, 2015 – 7:31 am

On August 18, 2015, Washington’s Court of Appeals, Division 2, decided In re Estate of Burton,[1] a case that underscores the importance of strictly complying with the law when signing your will.

Ray Burton was a successful businessman with substantial assets, including two gold mines and a number of collectible cars. He allegedly was estranged from his living relatives and considered himself without family. Beginning in 2011, a man named Victor White helped Burton with a variety of tasks around his home. At some point, Burton allegedly began to prepare White to take over his business dealings after he died. Burton was hospitalized for pneumonia in 2013, and after his release White became his caretaker. Throughout this time, Burton apparently had no will.

Shortly before he died, Burton handwrote and signed a document in red ink that was witnessed and signed by Lisa Erickson, a nurse. Then the day before he died, Burton handwrote another testamentary statement, again in red ink, on a blank portion of a preprinted healthcare directive form. He apparently needed some assistance from another nurse, Shirley Outson, to complete the writing. The final statement, which is difficult to read, appears to state:

Thank[2] Victor White remain my caretaker til I go to sleep/die. The transfer of Gold Mines Montecarlo and Black Hawk One, all my collector cars and real estate located at 36619 Mountain Hwy E, Eatonville, WA 98320. I wish all my worldly possessions to go to Victor White.

Burton signed the form below the statement, as did Outson. But no other witness signed the document.

On January 25, 2014, Burton passed away, and White petitioned the trial court to recognize Burton’s statement on the healthcare directive form as his will and to name White as personal representative of Burton’s estate. Richard Didricksen, Burton’s cousin and legal heir had Burton died without a will, moved for an order declaring that Burton died intestate.

The crux of the dispute was whether Burton’s statement met the formalities of RCW 11.12.020(1), which requires a person making a will to have it signed by two witnesses (among other things). The appellate court noted that because only one witness signed the healthcare directive document, the only testamentary writing signed by the deceased in the record, it did not strictly comply with the two witness requirement in RCW 11. 12. 020(1).

White argued that even if Burton did not strictly comply with the two witness requirement in RCW 11.12.020(1), the court should conclude that Burton nonetheless executed a valid will because he substantially complied with that requirement. The court noted that the risk of mistake if not fraud would be high if the court allowed probate of a testamentary document signed by only one witness when the second “witness” never saw that document.

The takeaway here is quite simple: strict compliance with the formalities of signing a will are vital if you want to ensure your wishes are carried out. The statutory purposes underlying the formality requirements of the statute are “to ensure that the testator has a definite and complete intention to dispose of his or her property and to prevent, as far as possible, fraud, perjury, mistake and the chance of one instrument being substituted for another.”[2] If you are creating a will or amending an existing will, it is in your interest to work with an attorney to ensure the document is valid and will hold up to scrutiny, should it be challenged in court.

[1] In re Estate of Burton, No. 46441-1-II, 2015 Wash. Ct. App. Div. 2.

[2] In re Estate of Malloy, 134 Wn.2d 316, 322-23, 949 P.2d 804 (1998).

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