Brennan v. Estate of Brennan, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 2866987 (Fla. 5th DCA Jul 23, 2010)

5th DCA: “[W]e find an evidentiary hearing should have been conducted and that the submission of affidavits was insufficient pursuant to section 733.207 to establish the lost will.”

When you can and can’t use affidavits is one of those technical questions probate lawyers don’t often ask themselves. Especially when you’re talking about neutral third-party witnesses (such as the witnesses to a will signing), my sense is that most lawyers will opt for affidavits whenever possible to avoid the expense and inconvenience of hauling live witnesses into court.

The issue in this case was whether live witness testimony is required as a matter of law to prove a lost will, or whether affidavits alone will do if your probate judge says OK. But first a short recap on the law governing lost wills in Florida:

  1. When an original will that is known to have existed cannot be located after the death of the decedent, the presumption is that the testator destroyed the will with the intent to revoke it.
  2. The proponent of the lost will has the burden of introducing competent, substantial evidence to overcome the presumption of revocation.
  3. The first step in overcoming the presumption of revocation is by the establishment and admission to probate of the lost or destroyed will pursuant to F.S. 733.207.
  4. Under F.S. 733.207, if you can come up with a copy of the lost will, then all you need is “the testimony of . . . one disinterested witness” to prove up the terms or “content” of the lost will you’re trying to probate.

For prior blog posts covering lost/destroyed wills click here, here, here, here.

5th DCA says NO to affidavits:

The 5th DCA ruled that “the submission of affidavits was insufficient pursuant to section 733.207 to establish [a] lost will.” In other words, live witness testimony is required, it’s NOT optional. Here’s how the 5th DCA explained its ruling:

In In re Estate of Parker, 382 So.2d at 654, the supreme court, interpreting an earlier version of section 733.207, discussed the proof required to establish a lost will in the presence and absence of a correct copy of the will, explaining: “A draft which is an accurate and correct reflection of the contents of a lost will is not the same as a ‘correct copy.’ To prove the former the statute requires the testimony of two witnesses. To prove the latter, the testimony of one witness suffices.” (Emphasis added.)

The Third District took the same position in In re Estate of Hatten, 880 So.2d 1271, 1275 (Fla. 3d DCA 2004), when it stated: “As explained by the statute, establishment of a will can be accomplished only if there is the testimony of a disinterested witness plus a copy of the will, or if there is the testimony of two disinterested witnesses.” (Emphasis added.) See also In re Estate of Musil, 965 So.2d 1157 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007) (niece failed to present testimony of at least one disinterested witness to prove execution and content of will as required to establish lost or destroyed will); In re Estate of Kero, 591 So.2d 675 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992) (testimony of one subscribing witness to original will’s proper execution proved content of original).

In this case, the only testimony in support of the petition to establish lost will came from Ms. Honsberger, who had an interest in the outcome of the case. The statute requires the testimony of at least one disinterested witness, which she was not. Although the trial judge indicated, and the parties agreed, that an additional evidentiary hearing would be scheduled so that Ms. Honsberger could present the testimony of a disinterested witness, no such hearing was conducted. Instead, the trial court admitted the lost 2002 will to probate upon the submission of witness affidavits alone. These affidavits merely stated that the witnesses saw the decedent execute the will and that they signed as witnesses immediately thereafter. Appellants did not stipulate to the submission of affidavits in lieu of testimony. Accordingly, we find an evidentiary hearing should have been conducted and that the submission of affidavits was insufficient pursuant to section 733.207 to establish the lost will.

Lesson learned?

A case about affidavits may seem trivial. It’s not. Why? Because it’s the type of “in-the-trenches” know how experienced lawyers bring to bear when meeting with new clients and estimating how long a case will take to litigate and how much it’s going to cost. If your client knows – up front – that you can’t get a lost will admitted to probate in the absence of a mini-trial with live witnesses, and that mini-trials are expensive and can take a long time to litigate, then all is well. If not, then all will not be well once everyone realizes what was supposed to be a simple “on the papers” proceeding you could knock out with a few affidavits . . . is anything but simple.