Bitetzakis v. Bitetzakis, — So.3d —-, 2019 WL 405568 (Fla. 2d DCA February 01, 2019)

Will execution formalities are second nature to most of us, but it never hurts to go back to basics.

Under F.S. 732.502, a Florida will isn’t valid unless it’s in writing and signed at the end in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses, who sign the will in the presence of the testator and in the presence of each other. Like most US states (and Commonwealth jurisdictions), Florida’s rules for executing wills trace their roots back almost two centuries to the UK Wills Act of 1837.

Florida’s “Strict Compliance” Standard:

The execution rules are simple, but you need to get them exactly right. Why? Because Florida requires “strict compliance”. In other words, unless every last statutory formality is complied with exactly, the will’s invalid.

And while a growing chorus of critics may argue this level of formalism’s outlived its usefulness (think “harmless error” rule), strict compliance is the historical norm. Why has this approach persisted for so long (and in so many jurisdictions)? Because these formalities — applied generally — do a good job of ensuring that most wills accurately and reliably reflect a testator’s intent (even if on occasion these same rules invalidate clearly genuine yet formally defective wills), as explained in Decoupling the Law of Will-Execution:

[F]ormalities are explained as fulfilling several functions that ensure that a will accurately and reliably reflects the testator’s intent. … First, will formalities serve an evidentiary function by providing reliable evidence that the testator intended a particular document to constitute a legally effective will. Second, they serve a protective function by reducing the possibility of fraudulent wills. [Third,] … will formalities serve  a cautionary function by reminding the testator of the legal significance of executing a will. … [And fourth,] will formalities serve [a] channeling function by funneling all wills into a substantially similar form. Because all wills are written, signed, and witnessed, probate courts can more efficiently determine whether the testator intended to execute a valid will.

Although the traditional law gives the court assurance that it can safely distribute the decedent’s estate according to the terms of a formally compliant will, critics contend that requiring courts to invalidate clearly genuine yet formally defective wills conflicts with formality’s role in the realization of testamentary   intent. They argue that the rule of strict compliance  is overly concerned with  preventing the validation of fraudulent or unintended wills and should be more concerned with validating genuine wills.

It’s against this backdrop that the 2d DCA considered what it means to actually “sign” a will under a strict-compliance reading of F.S. 732.502.

Was the decedent’s first name enough to validly execute his will? NO

In Bitetzakis v. Bitetzakis the decedent clearly intended to execute a valid will, but thought he had to do so before a notary (not true). Midway through signing his name, his wife stopped him and told him he’d need to sign again before a notary. She also testified that her husband normally wrote his entire name when signing documents. The next day they went to see a notary but husband goofed again, mistakenly signing a self-proving affidavit instead of re-signing his will.

So does half a signature count? Trial court said yes, 2d DCA said NO. Why not? Think strict compliance (as in even the tiniest mistake = invalid will). So saith the 2d DCA:

Generally, “[t]he primary consideration in construing a will is the intent of the testator.” Allen v. Dalk, 826 So.2d 245, 247 (Fla. 2002) (citing Elliott v. Krause, 531 So.2d 74, 75 (Fla. 1987)). However, “when testamentary intent is contained in a will, it can only be effectuated if the will has been validly executed” in strict compliance with section 732.502, Florida Statutes. Id. (emphasis added). Section 732.502(1)(a) dictates that in order to properly execute a will, the testator “must sign the will at the end” or else the testator’s name “must be subscribed at the end of the will by some other person in the testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction.”

In this case, the probate court erred because the evidence does not establish that the decedent signed at the end of the will or directed another to subscribe his name in his stead. See Dalk, 826 So.2d at 247 (“[W]here a testator fails to sign his or her will, that document will not be admitted to probate.”). Under these very unique circumstances, it is clear that the decedent recorded something less than his full customary signature and therefore did not sign the will within the meaning of section 732.502. See Signature, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining a signature as a “person’s name or mark written by that person … esp., one’s handwritten name as one ordinarily writes it” and “the act of signing something; the handwriting of one’s name in one’s usual fashion”).

To be sure, Florida law permits a testator to sign a will by making a mark not commonly regarded as a formal signature. See In re Williams’ Estate, 182 So.2d 10, 12 (Fla. 1965) (“[A] mark made by the testator at the proper place on his will with the intent that it constitute his signature and evidence his assent to the will is sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirement that he ‘sign’ his will.”). However, in this case we cannot construe the decedent’s alphabetic first name as constituting his mark because there is no evidence that the decedent had the concomitant intent that it serve in place of his signature. In other words, there is no evidence that the decedent signed his first name “with the intention that [a portion of his signature] evidence his assent to the document.” Id. at 13. To the contrary, that the decedent intentionally ceased signing the will and later signed the self-proof affidavit in an apparent attempt to ratify it dispels any notion that he believed or intended that his first name serve as his signature and assent to the will.