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Beneficiary of Unsigned Will Not Permitted to Sue Attorney

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In most cases writing a will is not terribly difficult. Making sure the will is effective can sometimes be more challenging. Involving a lawyer is supposed to make the process easier and the results more effective, but it does not always work out that way.

Dr. Warren Sisson, terminally ill with cancer, wanted to make sure his entire estate went to his brother Thomas. He had another brother, but the two were estranged and Dr. Sisson did not want him to share in the estate at all.

Dr. Sisson contacted attorney Shari Jankowski, who met with him and drafted a will and powers of attorney. A month later the attorney visited Dr. Sisson in a nursing home to discuss the documents. While there they talked about what should happen to Dr. Sisson’s estate in the unlikely event that his brother Thomas should die first; based on that conversation Dr. Sisson signed all the other documents but not his will, which Ms. Jankowski took back to her office to change.

Three days later, when she returned with Dr. Sisson’s revised will, the attorney found that his condition had deteriorated and he could no longer comprehend what he was doing. She did not let him sign the will that day, and did not return to see whether his condition improved. Dr. Sisson died two weeks later without ever signing a will; his estranged brother ended up receiving half his estate.

Dr. Sisson’s brother Thomas sued Ms. Jankowski for professional negligence. He pointed out that she could have had Dr. Sisson sign the will she had brought with her and later returned with a codicil or a new will. She might also have had him make changes and initial them on the document itself, or she could have visited with him on several more occasions with the amended will to see if his condition improved enough to sign.

The whole reason Dr. Sisson contacted the attorney in the first place was to make sure that his brother Thomas received his entire estate; her failure to complete that task caused Thomas injury for which he sought damages. Ms. Jankowski, on the other hand, argued that she did not owe Thomas Sisson any duty, and that her only duty was to Dr. Sisson.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court did not condone Ms. Jankowski’s behavior. Even though she might have fallen below the standard of care for attorneys, though, she did not owe any duty to Thomas Sisson. Her sole allegiance was to the late Dr. Sisson, and Thomas’ lawsuit against her could not proceed, ruled the state’s highest court. Sisson v. Jankowski, November 15, 2002.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.