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Friday, August 5, 2011

Can a suicide note override the deceased's will?

This question was recently asked of me by a reader. It's not a situation we see very often - thankfully - but neither is it unheard-of for a suicide note to leave assets to someone.

Can a suicide note override a previous will? The short answer is yes, it can, though it's not always going to be the case. In law things are never simple. The circumstances surrounding the note and the assets, as well as the note itself, should be examined carefully. Most likely the decision about the validity of the note will be made by the courts.

Possibly the first questions to be answered are whether the note was actually left by the deceased (as opposed to someone else) and whether it was intended to be found, read, and used in this manner.

Many provinces in Canada, but not all, allow for handwritten wills and codicils. This law is intended to allow individuals to write up their wishes without witnesses, and using their own words. Assuming the suicide note was made in one of these provinces, that is one hurdle cleared.

The words used, though they might be the deceased's own, still matter. Generally speaking any change of beneficiary must be clear enough to identify the specific asset in question. It seems highly unlikely that the writer of a suicide note is going to take the time to search out account numbers or policy numbers, but saying something like "my London Life insurance" might be specific enough if there is only one policy in existence.

The wording might also have an impact on who is in charge of the deceased's estate. If there was a valid will in place, followed by the suicide note, the note might name a different executor. Again, the language is rarely precise, but it could say that a specific person was to "be in charge of my affairs" or something along those lines.

There are cases in Canada in which the courts have upheld the contents of suicide note and agreed that they change the will. Note that these decisions were made by judges after hearing from everyone involved in the estate, examining the will and the note, and applying the current law. I wouldn't expect any executor or family member on his or her own to make a decision about the effect of a suicide note. These are serious legal matters that affect a lot of people, and I would hope that any such note would be taken to an estates lawyer to be presented to the court.

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