Florida Court Rules Invalidated Will Does Not Revoke Prior Will

A Florida Court has recently applied the doctrine of dependent relative revocation to uphold a prior will where the later will was procured by undue influence. In re Estate of Murphy, 184 So. 3d 1221 (Fla. App. 2d Dist. Jan. 20, 2016).

The testatrix, Virginia Murphy, was born in 1899 and died in 2006, at the age of 107, leaving behind an estate worth approximately $12 million. Between the years 1989 and 1994, Mrs. Murphy executed six different wills, all with the assistance of her attorney, Mr. Carey. All six of the wills left monetary bequests to Northwestern University, Mr. Carey, Mr. Carey's legal assistant, Ms. DuBois, Mrs. Murphy's accountant, Mr. Tornwall, and Mrs. Murphy's second cousin, Ms. Rocke. However, Mr. Carey and Ms. DuBois's shares of Mrs. Murphy's estate were increased from one will to the next, as Mrs. Murphy's health and mental awareness diminished.

After Mrs. Murphy died, Mr. Carey offered her most recent will (the 1994 will) for probate. While the 1994 will left a specific bequests of $500,000 to Northwestern University and $400,000 to Ms. Rocke, the remainder of Mrs. Murphy's estate devised in equal thirds between Mr. Carey, Ms. DuBois and Mr. Tornwall. Ms. Rocke filed an objection to probate of the 1994 will. After a multi-day trial, the probate court found that Mrs. Murphy had been unduly influenced by Mr. Carey and Ms. DuBois. The Court upheld the portions of the will that were not procured by undue influence, but held that the residuary clause was void, and ordered that it pass by intestacy as a lapsed gift.

The parties appealed the probate court's decision. The Second District Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court's decision that Mrs. Murphy had been unduly influenced, but remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on application of the doctrine of dependent relative revocation, which revives the portion of the former, valid will because provisions of the later will were found to be invalid. Misunderstanding the Second District Court of Appeals' instructions, rather than holding an evidentiary hearing, the probate court found that the doctrine did not apply and held again that the residue of Mrs. Murphy's estate should be distributed under the laws of intestacy.

On appeal again, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed and found that the doctrine applied. It iterated the "axiom of probate law that intestacy should be avoided whenever possible." The doctrine of dependent relative revocation, the Appellate Court explained, is a rule that creates a rebuttable presumption that the testator would have preferred to have a prior will probated rather than statutory intestacy. The doctrine's application "hinges on whether the provisions of the present invalid will are sufficiently similar to the former will."

The Court considered that Mrs. Murphy's "overall dispositional plan" remained fairly consistent between the numerous wills - proof that Mrs. Murphy preferred to leave her property through testacy rather than intestacy. Moreover, the Court found that in the context of undue influence, it would adopt a broader definition of similarity for purposes of determining application of the dependent relative revocation doctrine. The Court next found sufficient similarities between Mrs. Murphy's 1994 will, and her prior wills to justify application of the doctrine. As a result, the burden shifted to the party opposing its application to prove that Mrs. Murphy had an untainted intention to revoke all of her prior wills at the time she executed the 1994 will, so that the bulk of her estate would pass by intestacy. No such showing was made; therefore, Ms. Rocke inherited Mrs. Murphy's estate.

If you have any questions about this matter or other trust and estate issues, please contact Attorney Bernard A. Jackvony at 401-824-5100 or email [email protected] We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

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