FEBRUARY 22, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 6
The popular conception of the probate process and the making of wills is colored by misinformation from a number of sources. Movies, books and plays provide much of the misunderstanding, building an expectation of “the reading of the will” in a lawyer’s office (it just doesn’t happen), regular will contests (they are quite rare) and regular revocation of wills. That last is especially rare, and so a recent case focusing on how one revokes a will, and what level of mental capacity it requires, is a legal gem.
Why don’t people revoke their wills more often? They do — but the nearly universal way one revokes a will is to sign a new will, which recites that any previous wills are no longer effective. It is especially rare to destroy an existing will without signing a new one. When that does happen, the person no longer has a will at all — and the state law of “intestate succession” takes effect, just as it would if there had never been a will.
So how does one revoke a will, if they are for some reason not inclined to sign a new one? There are any number of ways to do so, but the classic method is for the person to physically tear his or her own will into at least two pieces. What Bill Potts did was more elaborate: he drew lines through every line of text, applied Liquid Paper to the names of the beneficiaries he had listed in the will, wrote “void” over each paragraph, and then wrote “bastard” and “get nothing” next to some of the names. Just to make sure he had driven his point home, he later took the marked-up document to his insurance agent’s office and fed it to their shredder.
As an aside, Mr. Potts’ approach would have worked just fine under Arizona law, too. The statute in Arizona requires only that the testator (the person who signed the will in the first place) perform “a revocatory act on the will.” That includes burning, tearing, canceling, obliterating or destroying the will or any part of it. It does not include telling someone else to do any of those things, unless the testator is conscious and physically present at the time.
After Mr. Potts died the individuals named in the will sought to admit a copy to the Arkansas probate courts. They argued that Mr. Potts had suffered from “insane delusions” at the time he tried to revoke the will, and that his revocation was ineffective.
The trial in probate court primarily focused on Mr. Potts’ belief that his late wife might have had an affair with one of the beneficiaries named in his will, that another might have stolen a gold bracelet belonging to his wife. A psychiatrist testified that those beliefs were the product of a “delusional disorder.” The trial judge found that Mr. Potts’ belief about his wife’s infidelity was probably wrong, and that his poor hearing and irascible nature probably contributed to a misunderstanding about the bracelet, Still, ruled the judge, the will beneficiaries had not met their burden of showing that Mr. Potts lacked testamentary capacity when he revoked his will, and therefore the revocation was effective. Bill Potts died intestate.
The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed, and upheld the probate court’s ruling. The appellate court spent some time considering whether there was sufficient evidence that Mr. Potts had the level of capacity needed to write a will — the same standard that would be applicable to determining whether he had the capacity to revoke a will. Although Mr. Potts frequently claimed, for example, that he had no relatives, the appellate court agreed that he probably meant that he had no surviving close relatives. Meanwhile, he could identify some, perhaps most, of his remaining distant relatives, and he just didn’t know where they lived, or even whether they were still alive.
“The evidence clearly showed that Bill was an irascible, angry, suspicious, controlling, profane and difficult man for most of his adult life,” wrote the appellate judges. That, however, was not enough to find his will revocation invalid. He had the capacity to revoke his will, and presumably he would have had the capacity to sign a new will — if he had known who he wanted his estate to go to. Heirs of Goza v. Estate of Potts, February 17, 2010.