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Woman’s “Holographic” Will Is Valid But Costly To Interpret

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Handwritten will

APRIL 10, 2000 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 41

Although most people might intend to use a lawyer to draft their wills and estate planning documents, there is no legal requirement that an attorney be involved. Often, in fact, non-lawyers prepare their own documents and do just fine. Sometimes they manage to complicate their estates and the lives of their families and beneficiaries.

In most states (including Arizona) a will must include the signatures of the individual and two witnesses in nearly every case. One exception to that requirement in Arizona (and in just over half of the other states) is what is called a “holographic” will; such a will must be substantially or completely in the signer’s handwriting, and must be signed, but no witnesses are required.

Problems often arise when individuals rely on holographic wills to distribute their estates, however. Clarice Temple Carney’s family learned that after she died and her handwritten wills were found.

Ms. Carney apparently did not think much of lawyers or judges. In 1992 she handwrote a will listing her assets, directing division of her estate into equal shares for three of her four children, but leaving nothing to her daughter Darnell C. Adams. She included one last instruction: “No court or lawyers are needed.”

Two years later Ms. Carney wrote another, similar, will in her own handwriting and signed it. Almost a year after that she scratched through just one of the provisions of the more recent will, wrote “void” next to it, and added a new caveat: “Anyone of these heirs who cares to hire a lawyer to see that this will is executed forfeits his inheritance.” Three months later she also wrote a separate document leaving $10,000 and a ring to her daughter Darnell.

What was the effect of all Ms. Carney’s holographic wills? The Mississippi Supreme Court decided that she had not meant to entirely revoke her earlier wills by writing “void” on just a part of one will, and that the effect of the five conflicting documents was to leave her daughter the ring plus $10,000 while dividing the remaining estate among her other three children and, in turn, their children. Matter of Carney, April 6, 2000.

Was that what Ms. Carney really wanted? It probably was, except for one thing. Ms. Carney had been crystal clear about not wanting to have lawyers or judges involved in handling her estate, and her handwritten wills completely failed to meet that goal. In fact, her children spent over two years and unknown amounts of money in court and legal fees wrangling over the effect of her holographic writings.

If a lawyer had prepared Ms. Carney’s will could her daughter still have filed a contest? Of course, but a few dollars spent on a lawyer during her life would almost certainly have saved Ms. Carney’s children many times the amount in total legal fees.

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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.