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Contract Not To Change Will Is Enforceable Against Estate

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Any competent adult can sign a will disposing of his or her property—unless he or she has agreed not to do so. Though they may seldom be used, the law of most states permits individuals to enter into a contract not to change their wills (or, for that matter, to write new wills). In most cases such contracts may have to be almost as formal as the wills themselves, but once the formalities are met the parties can bind themselves and their heirs and devisees.

Bernard W. Abrams and Doreen Massell made such a contract. When Mr. Abrams moved into Ms. Massell’s Atlanta, Georgia, home, they began to discuss what would happen to one of them if the other should die. Since they were not married and had no plans to get married, they wanted to have a clear understanding of what to expect from one another.

In 1993 Mr. Abrams had signed a new codicil to his will, leaving $400,000 to Ms. Massell. In 1996, she signed her own codicil, which left the home in which the couple lived to Mr. Abrams. Later in 1996 the two of them decided to enter into an agreement not to change their respective wills.

With the help of an attorney Mr. Abrams and Ms. Massell prepared and signed a contract that each would agree not to write a new will without the other one’s permission. They signed the agreement and, presumably, congratulated themselves on their good, and thorough, planning.

Two years later Mr. Abrams went to visit his brother and never returned. He sent word back to Ms. Massell that he did not want to have any further contact with her, and he wrote a new will leaving everything to his family.

Ms. Massell sued Mr. Abrams for violating their agreement. He died while the lawsuit was pending. His family sought to have his new will—the one disinheriting Ms. Massell—admitted to probate, but she insisted that the estate owed her $400,000. Mr. Abrams’ family members, meanwhile, sought to invalidate the agreement by insisting that it was based on an “immoral relationship.”

The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Abrams’ family’s claims. The court decided that the agreement was just what it purported to be—an agreement between two people who hoped to live together and support one another for the rest of their lives. Mr. Abrams had no authority to sign a new will unless he first secured approval from Ms. Massell. Abrams v. Massell, August 14, 2003.

Arizona law would also have recognized the contract between Mr. Abrams and Ms. Massell. Such an agreement must be in writing and signed, but would then be enforceable. Oddly, the contract to make (or to not make) a will is both easier to execute and harder to break than the will itself. The contract to make a will requires only a signature (where a will, in most cases, requires a signature and two witnesses). And since the contract is an agreement, it takes both parties to change (whereas a will, in most cases, can be unilaterally changed by its author).

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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.