Battle of the Wills - What Happens When More Than One Last Will and Testament
Imagine, for a moment, that you are notified that your 104 year old great-aunt just passed
away leaving behind a family fortune worth more than $400 million. Soon after, a Last
Will and Testament is produced for probate that was executed by her six years prior to
her death. The Will, however, leaves nothing to any of her family members. More
importantly, the Will admitted to probate was signed just six weeks after a previous Will
that did leave everything to her family -- as was believed by the family to be her
intention. The most recent Will wins in a battle of the Wills right? Maybe, but maybe not.
The previous scenario is precisely what happened when New York heiress Huguette
Clark died last year. Clark was the only surviving child of an industrialist and U.S.
Senator who made his fortune at the turn of the 19th century. Clark herself was divorced
in the 1930s and never had children. Previous Wills, however, executed by Clark
throughout her lifetime kept her fortune in the family, despite the fact that Clark did not
maintain a close relationship with any of them. Reports were that Clark had been
virtually isolated from her family for the last 20 years. Whether she was isolated by
choice or as a result of undue influence from non-family members close to the heiress
forms the basis of the will contest filed by Clark’s family.
Although the general rule that applies when more than one Will is presented for probate
states that the most recent Will prevails, there are reasons that the most recent Will can be
declared invalid. Typically, the testator explicitly renounces any previous Wills when
executing a new one. For the most recent Will to govern, however, it must be declared to
be a valid Will. In Clark’s case, if the court decides that Clark was under duress or was
the victim of undue influence when the most recent was executed, it could invalidate the
Will. At that point, the court could reinstate the Will executed by Clark just six weeks
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