In re Estate of Horton, No. 339737, 2018 WL 3443383 (Mich. Ct. App. July 17, 2018)
Lanora Jones (“Jones”), mother of the decedent, appealed a court order recognizing an electronic document as the valid will of her son, Duane Francis Horton II.
The decedent, Duane Francis Horton II, committed suicide in December 2015, at the age of 21 and left an undated, handwritten journal entry, which stated, “I am truly sorry about this … My final note, my farewell is on my phone. The app should be open. If not look in evernote, ‘Last Note’[.]” Id. at *1. The “Last Note” reference was to a typed document that only existed in electronic form. It contained “apologies and personal sentiments directed to specific individuals, religious comments, requests relating to his funeral arrangements, and many self-deprecating comments.” Id. The note also contained a paragraph regarding the distribution of the decedent’s property after his death. According to his last note, the decedent did not want to leave his mother anything.
Guardianship and Alternatives, Inc. (“GAI”), served as the decedent’s court-appointed conservator, and filed a petition nominating itself to serve as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. Jones, however, filed a competing petition and nominated herself to serve as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate, alleging that her son died intestate and that she was his sole heir. The probate court concluded that GAI presented clear and convincing evidence that decedent’s electronic note was intended by the decedent to constitute his last will; therefore, the court recognized the document as valid under MCL 700.2503. Id. at *1.
Jones appealed that decision, claiming that the trial court erred by recognizing the decedent’s note as a will under MCL 700.2503. Specifically, Jones argued that the decedent’s note was an attempt to make a holographic will under MCL 700.2502(2), and while MCL 700.2503 allows a court to overlook minor deficiencies in a will, it cannot be used to create a will when the document does not meet the requirements of a holographic will. Alternatively, Jones argued that GAI failed to offer clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the electronic note to constitute his will as required by MCL 700.2503. The court disagreed with these arguments.
The appellate court reviewed the relevant laws governing wills in the state of Michigan. The Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC), MCL 700.1101 et seq., governs wills in Michigan, and states in part that:
(1) Except as provided in subsection (2) and in sections 2503, 2506, and 2513, a will is valid only if it is all of the following:
(a) In writing.
(b) Signed by the testator or in the testator’s name by some other individual in the testator’s conscious presence and by the testator’s direction. . .
(2) A will that does not comply with subsection (1) is valid as a holographic will, whether or not witnessed, if it is dated, and if the testator’s signature and the document’s material portions are in the testator’s handwriting.
(3) Intent that the document constitutes a testator’s will can be established by extrinsic evidence, including, for a holographic will, portions of the document that are not in the testator’s handwriting.
Id. at *2 (citing MCL 700.2502).
Even though this provision lists necessary requirements for a will to be valid, section (1) provides that exceptions to these formalities are found under MCL 700.2502(2) and MCL 700.2503. MCL 700. 2503 states that:
Although a document or writing added upon a document was not executed in compliance with section 2502, the document or writing is treated as if it has been executed in compliance with that section if the proponent of the document or writing established by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document or writing to constitute any of the following:
(a) The decedent’s will. . . .
Id. at *3 (citing MCL 700.2503).
The court reasoned that it was undisputed that the decedent’s will did not constitute a valid will under MCL 700.2502(1) or a holographic will under MCL 700.2502(2). Therefore, the validity of the will turns on the applicability of MCL 700.2503, and whether the trial court erred in concluding that GAI presented by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the electronic note to constitute his will. In starting its analysis, the court first addressed Jones’s argument that the decedent’s note is a failed holographic will. The court discounted this argument by reasoning that MCL 700.2503 is an independent exception to the formalities required under MCL 700.2502(1) and does not require a decedent to satisfy the requirements of a holographic will under MCL 700.2502(2). Id. at *3. While under MCL 700.2503 the document must be in writing, there are no specific formalities required for the execution of the document as long as the proponent of the will presents with clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document to constitute his or her will. Id.
The court of appeals held that the trial court was correct in concluding that the document expressed the decedent’s testamentary intent, and that GAI demonstrated it by clear and convincing evidence. Id. at *4. The court found that the document itself was clearly written with decedent’s death in mind because it “contain[ed] apologies and explanations for his suicide, comments relating to decedent’s views on God and the afterlife, final farewells and advice to loved ones and friends, and it contain[ed] requests regarding his funeral.” Id. at *5. In addition, the note was very clear on how the decedent intended his property to be distributed.
Lastly, the court held that the extrinsic evidence that was presented to the trial court also proved that the note was intended to be the decedent’s will. Particularly, the court mentioned that his “strained relationship” with his mother was extrinsic evidence that explained why it would be his intent to preclude her from inheriting anything form his estate. Id. Ultimately, the court held that “the nature of decedent’s relationship with his mother, when read in conjunction with his clear directive that none of his money go to his mother, supports the conclusion that decedent intended for the electronic note to govern the posthumous distribution of his property to ensure that his mother, who would otherwise be his heir, did not inherit fromhim.” Id. at *5. Therefore, the trial court did not err in concluding that GAI presented clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the electronic note to constitute his will, and accordingly, the document constituted a valid will under MCL 700.2503.