Drafting and modifying your will – just leave it to the professionals

Your Guide to State, Local, Federal, Estate + International Taxation

will, estate planning, estate plan, CPA, attorneyAs a former probate attorney, I’ve seen some interesting things. One memory that sticks out is receiving a last will and testament with red splotches on it. I told myself it was from candy and that the deceased person must have had a sugar addiction like me. Nonetheless, I quickly scanned the original to my file, sent it to the court and washed my hands.

Last week, I came across a New Jersey Court of Appeals case analyzing the validity of a handwritten codicil (amendment) to the will of E. Warren Bradway. Bradway signed a (typed) will in 2001 naming his partner, Coleman, as the primary beneficiary and executor of his estate. When Bradway and Coleman ended their relationship in 2006, Bradway prepared an amendment to his will, switching out Coleman’s name with Baylock. Bradway prepared the codicil in his own blood. When Bradway died in 2016, Baylock filed the will and codicil with the probate court on behalf of the estate. Coleman contested the validity of the handwritten blood codicil. Each side hired its own DNA and handwriting experts.

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The DNA experts agreed that most of the DNA on the will was from a full-sibling of Bradway’s. They did not have Bradway’s DNA available, which is why they tested Bradway’s siblings for comparison. The handwriting experts agreed that the body of the codicil was written by Bradway, but Coleman’s expert could not rule out that the signature might have been cut-and-pasted there after Bradway’s death.

The District Court ruled in favor of the estate. Coleman appealed the decision, claiming the District Court made its ruling before Coleman had submitted all of his evidence – namely two witnesses who would have testified that Bradway’s signature was not on the codicil at his death. The Appeals Court rejected Coleman’s argument because it found that Bradway intended for the codicil to be a valid amendment to his will, regardless of whether it was signed.

Drafting a codicil to a will is not a “DIY” project. In the end, Bradway’s estate won, but it probably cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in expert witness and attorney’s fees. Not to mention there is an obvious “ick” factor for all those who have to handle a legal document drafted with bodily fluids. Some things, like estate planning, are better left to the professionals. If you’ve been thinking about amending your will or trust, don’t cross out, write on, or attempt to alter it yourself. Instead, call your estate planning attorney!

Jennifer A. Maas