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Debts Not Forgiven At Death Without Proper Documentation

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Virginia Lee Bessett was fond of Edwin Huson. Ms. Bessett loaned Mr. Huson money several times over a two-year period. For each loan, Mr. Huson signed a promissory note that Ms. Bessett held as evidence of the loan.

Upon Ms. Bessett’s death, a sealed letter addressed to Mr. Huson was discovered in her safe. In part, the letter read: “Please mark all unpaid notes paid in full upon my death.” Ms. Bessett made clear in her letter that it was out of affection for Mr. Huson that she wished to forgive his debt to her. However, Ms. Bessett failed to date her letter, and although the envelope indicated that it was to be delivered to Mr. Huson upon her death, she did not deliver the letter to him or anyone else during her life.

The personal representative of Ms. Bessett’s estate sued to collect on the promissory notes in the Oregon courts. He agreed that he had owed the debt as described in the notes, but Mr. Huson claimed that Ms. Bessett cancelled the debt in the letter found after her death. The trial court agreed with Mr. Huson and found that he did not owe the estate any money because Ms. Bessett had cancelled the debts in her handwritten letter.

Ms. Bessett’s personal representative appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s holding and found that Ms. Bessett’s letter was insufficient to establish a gift to Mr. Huson.

The Oregon appellate court ruled that in order for any gift to be valid, the intent of the person making the gift must be clear, and the gift must be delivered to and accepted by the person for whom it is intended. The gift’s recipient must have a present interest in the gift even if the gift may not be complete until after the donor’s death. It reasoned that Mr. Huson had received no present interest in the gift since he had not received or accepted the gift during Ms. Bessett’s life. Since the letter was undated, it was impossible to determine whether she drafted the letter in contemplation of her death, or some years prior.

Because Ms. Bessett failed to deliver her gift to Mr. Huson during her lifetime, there is no way to tell that Ms. Bessett still intended the gift described in her letter at the time of her death. While gifts made in contemplation of death may be valid, Oregon law has long disfavored such gifts. Quoting the Oregon Supreme Court from an eighty-year-old case, the Court of Appeals noted that allowing a gift like the one involved in Ms. Bessett’s estate would be to approve transfer documents that are made “without the safeguards cast by the law around the execution of wills.” In other words, without witnesses or the formal requirements of a will it is simply too difficult to determine whether Ms. Bessett’s true intention was to make a gift to her friend, and any intended gift failed. Estate of Bessett, January 23, 2002.

Ms. Bessett could, of course, have made her wishes clear—and effective—by just signing a will. The attempt to avoid cost (or formalities) sometimes results in a failure to accomplish one’s legal goals.

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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.