Close this search box.

Without “Testamentary Intent” Handwritten Note is Not a Will

Print Article


In 1978, shortly after his mother’s death, Donald Gilbert wrote this note on a three-by-five note card:

“Dear Lillian, 11-27-78. I’ve been very depressed—I can’t stop crying for Mom—in my death I’ve left everything to you and the children. Don’t be angry with me. Love, Don.

Mr. Gilbert died seventeen years later. His cousin Lillian Miller claimed that the note was a will, and that she and her children should inherit his estate.

California, like Arizona, recognizes “holographic” wills. A holographic will is one substantially (or, as in the case here, entirely) in the individual’s handwriting and signed by the individual. While wills usually must be witnessed by at least two persons, holographic wills do not require any witnesses. If Mr. Gilbert’s note card was a will at all, it would be valid under California law.

As is usually the case, of course, the facts were more complicated than that. After Mr. Gilbert’s death Ms. Miller had secured appointment as administrator (what in Arizona and many other states would be called “personal representative”) and had handled the estate for two years. During that time she had misused Mr. Gilbert’s funds; the probate court ultimately ordered her to repay $837,525. If she and her children were the sole devisees, however, her misuse of funds probably would not cause her any problems.

The probate court determined that the note was in Mr. Gilbert’s handwriting. One friend testified that Mr. Gilbert had said he had prepared a will; another friend swore that Mr. Gilbert had said the exact opposite. Considering all the evidence, the probate court decided that the note card was Mr. Gilbert’s last will and that Ms. Miller and her children should inherit the entire estate.

The California Court of Appeals disagreed. For the appellate court, the key question was whether Mr. Gilbert intended the note card to be a will. It would not be enough, said the court, just to determine that the note reflected what Mr. Gilbert intended to do. The note referred to a past act when it said “I’ve left everything to you….” In that case, the note was not itself a will, even though it was in Mr. Gilbert’s handwriting and signed by him.

Since no other will could be found, and there were no children or spouse surviving, Mr. Gilbert’s estate went to his cousins—including Ms. Miller, but also including several others. It is unclear how much money remains in the estate, or how much Ms. Miller will have to repay. Estate of Gilbert, October 16, 2003.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

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.