The Tennessee Court of Appeals in Nashville recently held that a decedent’s handwritten note in a Bible—which belonged to a close friend but was found among the decedent’s personal effects after her death—constituted a valid codicil that amended her will. A codicil is “[a] written amendment or addition to an existing will,” and, as with the preparation and execution of wills themselves, states have specific requirements that must be met for a codicil to be valid and legally change the decedent’s will. In addition, some states allow wills and codicils to be handwritten, or “holographic,” and apply a more lenient set of requirements for the execution of such documents.
In Tennessee, codicils are subject to the same requirements as wills. Generally, a will or codicil must be signed by the testator and at least two witnesses to be valid in Tennessee. However, Tennessee recognizes holographic wills and codicils, and the relevant statute states, “No witness to a holographic will is necessary, but the signature and all its material provisions must be in the handwriting of the testator and the testator’s handwriting must be proved by two (2) witnesses.”
In the Tennessee Court of Appeals case, the decedent, named “Micki,” wrote in her own handwriting:
July 22, 2019
Owner [of the Bible]: William Richard Brooks
Albert Read Lewin—shall receive $3,000 per month for life—This is appreciation for his care and complete dedication to Micki and her welfare. He gave All in making her life-
The decedent did not otherwise sign the note. The parties agreed the decedent had the requisite mental capacity at the time she wrote the note and that the handwriting was hers. Therefore, the issue addressed by the Court of Appeals was whether the insertion of her first name within the body of her handwritten note satisfied the signature requirement contained in the relevant Tennessee statute. The Court summarized the relevant law in Tennessee, which provides that if a holographic will or codicil is not signed by the testator but instead his or her name is inserted in some part of the document, there is a presumption the author did not intend for the writing to be a testamentary instrument. However, this presumption may be rebutted by sufficient evidence that the writing was in fact intended to be a testamentary instrument. The Court noted that the trial court made the specific finding that the decedent’s handwritten note in the Bible demonstrated testamentary intent, and the evidence did not support reversing that finding on appeal. The Court further found the decedent’s writing her first name in the note constituted a signature of part of her name, and Tennessee law provides that a signing of part of the testator’s name, if done with testamentary intent, may be sufficient. The Court held these facts overcame the rebuttable presumption in Tennessee that the decedent did not intend for the Bible note to operate as a valid codicil.
North Carolina also typically requires wills and codicils to be “signed by the testator and attested by at least two competent witnesses.” Like Tennessee, however, North Carolina also recognizes holographic wills, requiring them to be “[s]ubscribed by the testator, or with the testator’s name written in or on the will in the testator’s own handwriting,” (emphasis added), eliminating the requirement of an attesting witness. North Carolina also recognizes holographic codicils if they meet the same requirements and evidence the decedent’s wishes regarding the final disposition of his or her property, considering the totality of the circumstances. Therefore, under North Carolina law, particularly the specific statutory provision allowing the testator to handwrite his or her name on or in the document in lieu of signing it, a North Carolina court would likely reach the same result as the Tennessee Court of Appeals regarding the handwritten Bible note.
The attorneys at Lindley Law specialize in trusts and estates litigation, including disputes over wills. If you need assistance regarding a legal dispute over a will or trust, please give us a call at 704-457-1010 to see how we may be able to help you. For more information regarding our attorneys and practice areas, please visit our website at www.lindleylawoffice.com.