Curing Execution Errors and Mistaken Terms in Wills
John H. Langbein
Yale University - Law School
Lawrence W. Waggoner
University of Michigan Law School
August 4, 2010
U of Michigan Public Law Working Paper No. 207
Recent years have seen a remarkable change emerge in the way American courts treat cases involving errors in the execution or the content of wills. The courts have traditionally applied a rule of strict compliance and held the will invalid when some innocuous blunder occurred in complying with the Wills Act formalities, such as when one attesting witness went to the washroom before the other had finished signing. Likewise, the courts have traditionally applied a no-reformation rule in cases of mistaken terms, for example, when the typist dropped a paragraph from the will or the drafter misrendered names or other attributes of a devise; the court would not correct the will no matter how conclusively the mistake was shown.
Leading modern authority in a number of American states has now reversed the strict compliance and no-reformation rules. Both by judicial decision and by legislation, the courts have been empowered to excuse harmless execution errors and to reform mistaken terms. Section 2-503 of the Uniform Probate Code treats a noncomplying will as if it had been executed in compliance with the statutory formalities, if the proponent establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document as his or her will. The new Restatement of Property endorses the harmless-error rule.
The new Restatement authorizes courts to reform mistaken terms in a will. The new Restatement’s reformation provision, which has now been codified in § 2-805 of the Uniform Probate Code and § 415 of the Uniform Trust Code, provides that a court may reform any donative document, including a will, “to conform the text to the donor’s intention if it is established by clear and convincing evidence (1) that a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement, affected specific terms of the document; and (2) what the donor’s intention was.”
The provisions of the new Restatement and the Uniform Probate Code endorsing the harmless-error and reformation rules for American law bring new opportunities and responsibilities for probate lawyers. The older conventions of the strict-compliance rule and the no-reformation rule are now open to challenge everywhere. Lawyers processing probate matters need to be alert to the opportunity they now have to raise issues that used to be foreclosed. Sad cases of defeated intent that used to be beyond hope may now be remediable. Innocuous formal defects can be excused, and mistaken terms can be reformed, but only if counsel sees the issue and brings it forward and, in jurisdictions that have not codified the new rules, if the court is hospitable to them.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 11
Keywords: Wills Act, execution errors, Restatement of Property
JEL Classification: K11, K30working papers series
Date posted: August 4, 2010
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