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Will Prepared By Bookkeeper Valid–Contestants Disinherited

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Six days before he died, Arizonan Ralph Shumway signed a new will. Rather than consult a lawyer to prepare the will, Mr. Shumway had relied on his bookkeeper, Adelida Vega Rodriguez, to prepare the document for him. Because the will she prepared left one fourth of Mr. Shumway’s estate to Ms. Rodriguez, two of his daughters challenged its validity.

Ms. Rodriguez had used computer software to prepare Mr. Shumway’s will for him. As she testified at trial, the program did not allow her to edit his will or make any changes; she answered questions on the computer and the final product was automatically produced. Furthermore, she said, she simply read the questions to Mr. Shumway (who was blind) and he provided the answers.

The will Mr. Shumway signed was actually Ms. Rodriguez’ second effort on his behalf. The first version of his will left one-quarter of his estate to be divided among his daughters, and one-quarter each to Ms. Rodriguez and two of Mr. Shumway’s brothers. When he reviewed that draft, Mr. Shumway decided one of his brothers should receive only a token amount instead—this change was later taken as evidence that Mr. Shumway was making his own decisions and not unduly influenced by Ms. Rodriguez. His final will left a few small bequests to individuals, and divided the remainder half to his daughters and one-quarter each to his brother Newell and to Ms. Rodriguez.

Mr. Shumway’s will also included an in terrorem clause—a provision that called for the disinheritance of any beneficiary who challenged the validity of the will. When two of Mr. Shumway’s daughters objected to the will’s provisions in favor of Ms. Rodriguez, she responded by arguing that their legal challenge caused them to lose their interest in the estate.

Mr. Shumway’s daughters made two attacks on their father’s last will. They first argued that Ms. Rodriguez had unduly influenced their father, and that the provision leaving her one quarter of the estate was invalid. Then they argued that by preparing the will she was practicing law without a license, and that she should be prevented from seeking admission of the will to probate. They noted that under Arizona law a lawyer who prepared a will for a non-relative leaving one-quarter of the estate to himself or herself would be subject to disciplinary proceedings, and the bequest to the lawyer would be set aside.

Arizona law holds that a will (or deed, or gift) is presumptively invalid if it was procured through the efforts of one who shares a “confidential relationship” with the person making the transfer. Both parties agreed that Ms. Rodriguez, because she handled Mr. Shumway’s finances and worked closely with him for an extended period of time, held such a confidential relationship. They disagreed about whether she had overcome the presumption that the will was invalid.

The Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with Ms. Rodriguez that she had shown, clearly and convincingly, that the will represented Mr. Shumway’s own wishes. They pointed out that he had made changes to the first draft she prepared, and that Mr. Shumway had a reputation as a strong-willed, opinionated man even during his final illness, and that he had not been close to his children.

The claim that Ms. Rodriguez was practicing law when she prepared the will was also easily disposed of. The court noted that she had not given Mr. Shumway any legal advice, and had really only answered questions posed by the software program she used to prepare his will. To hold that the will was invalid simply because a non-lawyer was involved, noted the court, would invalidate thousands of wills unnecessarily.

The last question was whether the provision of Mr. Shumway’s will which penalized his daughters for filing the will contest should be enforced. The court held that an in terrorem clause can be valid in Arizona, at least where the contestant did not have probable cause to file litigation. In this case, ruled the judges, Mr. Shumway’s daughters should have known that the contest would fail, and should not have filed it. Mr. Shumway’s daughters inherited nothing from his estate. Estate of Shumway, September 7, 1999.

[Editor’s note: Almost exactly a year after this article was written, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision with regard to the effect of the in terrorem provision. In Matter of Shumway, September 15, 2000, the state’s high court considered Arizona law on the subject and held that there was at least probable cause for the filing of a contest of Mr. Shumway’s will. Since probable cause existed, the daughters’ shares under his new will should not have been forfeited. The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals decision, or at least that portion of it which applied the in terrorem provision.]

3 Responses

  1. Would it not be considered that a daughter shares confidential relationship with a father ? Wouldn’t this factor alone be grounds to deem the trust invalid ?

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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.