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Multiple Original Wills Lead To Uncertainty About Intentions

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APRIL 20, 1998 VOLUME 5, NUMBER 42

Although most people believe that it is important to sign a will to provide for the distribution of their estates upon death, most never get around to doing so. Even among those who do prepare wills, often the original document is missing. In most states a missing will is presumed to have been destroyed by the decedent, thereby revoking the terms of the will. To make it easier to find original documents, some lawyers routinely have clients sign two or three wills at the same time, making each one an original document.

In Arkansas, William Y. Laneer’s lawyer did just that. He had Mr. Laneer sign three original wills and kept one of the three in his own file. The wills were signed in 1973, and when Mr. Laneer died in 1996 there was no evidence he had signed a new will. However, both of the original wills which had been given to him were missing (only a photocopy could be located).

When Mr. Laneer signed his 1973 will, he had been engaged in a family quarrel with his only son, William R. Laneer. Accordingly, his will left William R. the sum of $1.00, a common, if old-fashioned, method of disinheriting an heir. His entire estate was to be divided among his four daughters.

One of those daughters objected. Saying that Mr. Laneer had changed his mind after 1973, she argued that he intended to treat all five children equally. She pointed to the fact that, shortly after making the wills, Mr. Laneer had made $5,000 gifts to each of his children, including William R.

Interestingly, the daughter who argued that the will was invalid acted against her own self-interest. She would take one-fourth of the estate if the will was valid, but only one-fifth if her brother was treated equally. Because of that, argued one of the other sisters, she had no standing to contest the validity of the will–in order to object, argued the second sister, she would have to receive some benefit from a successful contest.

The Arkansas trial court decided that any one of Mr. Laneer’s three original wills would be eligible to be probated. Even though both of the originals which had been given to him were missing, the presumption that he had revoked them did not apply to revoke the third original, which was still in his lawyer’s files.

On consideration of the case, the Arkansas Court of Appeals first had to deal with the question of standing. They determined that the sister could challenge the will, notwithstanding the fact that she would receive more from the estate if the will were valid. Any “interested person,” including an heir or a devisee, may contest the validity of a will.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s holding. Noting that Mr. Laneer could have made his wishes clear by signing a new will sometime in the intervening 23 years, the justices permitted the will disinheriting William R. to control the disposition of Mr. Laneer’s estate.

Arizona law is similar to Arkansas law on each of the points raised by Mr. Laneer’s will. In Arizona, an “interested person” may include almost anyone who claims to be interested in the outcome of a probate proceeding. Arizona law, like Arkansas’ law, also provides that a missing will raises a presumption that the decedent destroyed the will during life (thereby revoking it).

Lawyers approach the problem of maintaining wills in different ways. A few, like Mr. Laneer’s lawyer, prepare multiple original documents. Others may retain the original in the lawyer’s files and provide only copies to the client. Most deliver the original to the client (retaining a copy) and put the burden on the client to maintain the document in a safe and accessible place. Lawyers almost always recommend periodic review of wills and trusts. Twenty years is a long time to keep track of original documents–and intentions.

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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.