John Grisham, internationally recognized author known for writing captivating legal suspense and drama, released a slightly different type of book in 2013. While most of Grisham’s stories center on violent crimes and courtroom battles, Sycamore Row makes a stark departure into the world of probate law.
Sycamore Row begins with the suicide of a wealthy landowner, Seth Hubbard. He drafts a holographic will and instructions for a trusted employee to deliver it to a small town lawyer. Hubbard knows that his will undoubtedly is going to cause a stir and lead to a will contest by his children. After all, he left the majority of this estate to his African American caregiver. The story details the struggles and litigation of the will contest, which seeks to undo his last wishes.
A holographic will is one that is written in the testator’s own hand, meaning someone actually sits down and handwrites their wishes. There are cases from the turn of the last century where various odd circumstances led people to do so in very strange ways. For instance, a farmer trapped by a combine and realizing his certain demise drafted his holographic will by using a pocketknife to etch his wishes on the side of the tractor. A court upheld this. Another case from the 1920’s involved a fairly wealthy banker who was mugged and shot in his car. He used a fountain pen to scribble his last wishes on the dash of his car, while he lay bleeding to death.
Not all states recognize holographic wills, however. Precise rules vary by jurisdiction, but the bulk of states do allow some form of holographic will. Some require a witness; some do not. Others do not allow their residents to use them but do recognize such wills if made in a jurisdiction that does permit them.
New York Probate Law
New York probate law does not generally permit holographic wills of any sort with just one limited exception. Under New York law, members of the U.S. Armed forces may make such holographic wills under very limited circumstances. In part, the law provides that each of the following may do so:
1) A member of the armed forces of the United States while in actual military or naval service during a war, declared or undeclared, or other armed conflict in which members of the armed forces are engaged.
2) A person who serves with or accompanies an armed force engaged in actual military or naval service during such war or other armed conflict.
3) A mariner while at sea.
Nevertheless, there are even limitations on these. For instance, a holographic will made by a mariner at sea is only valid for 3 years after it is made. Therefore, the rules are not always cut and dry; therefore, it is always best to consult a qualified elder law estate planning attorney to make such plans long before a situation arises that requires a holographic will. Though fictional, as Sycamore Row demonstrates, will contests can be ugly and expensive. There is no reason for that to be one’s legacy.