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Judges examine estate case involving will, self-proving clause

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Deciding on an issue of first impression regarding the proper execution of a person’s will, the state’s second-highest appeals court has determined the Indiana General Assembly doesn’t want validly signed wills and self-proving clauses to be set aside lightly.

The ruling comes in Estate of Wilgus S. Gibbs, Sr., No. 81A01-1011-ES-560, stemming from an estate dispute out of Union County dating to late 2009. Wilgus S. Gibbs Sr. had his son, Wilgus Gibbs Jr., contact an attorney to have a will prepared quickly because of a progressive lung disease. The son told the lawyer that his father wanted the will to stipulate that Gibbs Jr. would receive the entirety of Gibbs Sr.’s estate and the man’s three granddaughters would be excluded.

Gibbs Sr. signed the will and a self-proving clause at the end of the document, and those witnessing his signature found him to be of sound mind. A day later, he went to the law office and spoke with the lawyer’s secretary who’d witnessed him sign the document and thanked her. He also told her that he’d excluded the granddaughters because he had already given his daughter – their mother – substantial assets before she died in 2006.

The man’s health rapidly deteriorated and he died Jan. 8, 2010, and his son became the personal representative on the estate and executor of the will. Less than a month after Gibbs Sr. died, the granddaughters filed a complaint to contest the will. Both sides filed for summary judgment, and in October 2010, the trial court denied the granddaughters’ motion for summary judgment and granted the motion filed by Gibbs Jr.

On appeal, the granddaughters argued that it’s undisputed that Gibbs Sr. didn’t properly publish his will at the time he signed it, despite the signature of the self-proving clause. They cited testimony from two witnesses who saw Gibbs Sr. sign the document but couldn’t recall him specifically saying he knew it was his will or not.

But the claim of “undisputed” evidence of a failure to publish overlooks the self-providing clause, the appellate panel wrote. The judges noted that Indiana cases have previously explored what happens when inconsistencies exist between a self-proving clause to a will and subsequent witness testimony, and that a fact finder must resolve those discrepancies, but that none of that precedent involved the question of whether the discrepancies could be resolved by summary judgment.

The panel cited Indiana Code 29-1-7-13(c) that says a self-proving clause in a will creates a rebuttable presumption that the document was properly executed, and that publication of the will is one aspect of its execution.

“We conclude that this uncertainty or lack of memory as to the particulars of the will execution ceremony is insufficient as a matter of law to overcome the presumption, provided by the self-proving clause, that the will was properly executed,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote, noting that legislative history and court precedent in 2003 provides that finding.

Looking to appellate caselaw from Illinois in 1958 and 1970, the Indiana court panel found that precedent as persuasive for this state in determining the weight Hoosier lawmakers intended for self-proving clauses to have in the context of will validity.

The granddaughters lost on that claim, as well as their argument that Gibbs Sr. was unduly influenced to sign the will by his son. The appellate judges also determined the granddaughters waived their claim of mistake or fraud because they didn’t cite any relevant legal authority.


 

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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