It has been said that “[t]he only constant in life is change.” Even when we enter the “golden years” of retirement and old age, our circumstances, desires, and wishes are all subject to change. Some of these changes can end up causing significant legal troubles for those who believed they would benefit from our estates once we passed. This is the tough lesson that the Fort Hays State University Foundation (the “Foundation”) is learning the hard way.
During his lifetime, Earl Field had acquired a significant amount of wealth in the form of investment accounts, farmland, and mineral rights. Up until near the time of his death, the Foundation expected to receive a substantial portion of Mr. Field’s estate. That was, after all, the wishes and desires Mr. Fields expressed in his will. But in 2013 and shortly after his death, Mr. Field’s former bookkeeper emerged with a letter on Mr. Field’s stationary in which (allegedly) Mr. Field amended his will to leave half of his estate to his bookkeeper and a quarter of his estate to his attorney. The remaining quarter, the writing alleges, would be left to the Foundation. As one might imagine, this sets up a serious legal battle between the Foundation and the bookkeeper over who gets the bulk of Mr. Field’s estate’s assets.
Mr. Field Could Legally Change His Will – But Did He in Fact Change It?
The dispute is not over whether Mr. Field could have changed his will: all sides recognize and agree that if Mr. Field properly executed a codicil, he could change the terms of his will as he saw fit. Rather, the question in this case is whether the letter produced by Mr. Field’s bookkeeper is a valid and properly executed codicil to Mr. Field’s original will.
A codicil is a legal document executed by a testator (one who has created a will) that changes the terms and provisions of the testator’s will. In order to be “properly executed” a codicil must generally be executed in the same manner as the original will, i.e., it must be signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses (preferably disinterested witnesses). The purpose of requiring wills and codicils to be witnessed by two individuals is simple: in the event of a legal action contesting the document’s validity and/or the testator’s capacity to execute the document, there would be two individuals available who could provide sworn testimony concerning the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the execution of the document.
Could Mr. Field Have Avoided This Dilemma?
There is likely nothing Mr. Field (or anyone else in a similar situation) could have done to prevent this legal battle from occurring. If the codicil is a forgery as the Foundation claims, then Mr. Field bears no responsibility for contributing to the situation. If the codicil accurately reflects Mr. Field’s amended wishes, he certainly could not have controlled the fact that the two individuals he chose to act as witnesses were killed in a homicide-suicide incident before this dispute erupted.
So What Lessons Can Kansans Learn from the Estate of Mr. Field?
Kansans who are looking to change their existing will should first enlist the services of an experienced Kansas Estate Planning Attorney who can ensure a codicil is properly drafted and executed. But you should also consider taking the time to speak with your beneficiaries if you are altering the portion of your estate that they will be receiving. The simple act of speaking with your beneficiaries, your heirs, and others about your wishes and desires can help prevent the type of legal troubles now plaguing Mr. Field’s estate.
If you need assistance with creating or modifying your will or other estate planning documents, contact the Wichita estate planning law firm of the Weber Law Office at (316) 265-7802.