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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Handwritten note found not to be valid, makes a difference of $1.4 million

After Eleena Violette Murray died in 2017, a note was found in her home that seemed to change the amounts given to beneficiaries in her will. The note made a difference: without the note, the SPCA would receive $1.4million, and if the note were valid, the SPCA would receive $100,000, with the rest of the money going to extended family members.

The matter went to court, of course. Any executor in this sort of position would want a ruling on what to do with the estate. Four years and a lot of legal wrangling later, there is an answer.

I believe the judge was very careful in this case and did a great job looking at not just the note and the will, but the way Ms. Murray dealt with legal documents over the years. In the end, the judge said that Ms. Murray had always made sure that her will and changes to her will had been done with a lawyer. The note itself had not been dated or signed or brought to anyone's attention. The judge thought it looked more like an ongoing thought process than a final decision about bequests. The photo attached here is of the note itself (photo credit: BC Supreme Court via CTV News). For a CTV News story about the case, click here. To read the decision of Henderson v. Myler, click here

I agree with the decision, but I can't help but think about the thousands of people who don't make proper wills. I have seen many scribbled notes over the years. Some family members want to believe they are valid wills for someone who has passed away, and others don't. 

The scribbled notes are pretty much always a problem. Sometimes they just say things like "John will take care of everything" but don't give John any help whatsoever in terms of distributing the estate. Some are signed and dated; others are not. Some contain exasperating language such as "give my favourite ring and my money assets to Joe". Which ring is your favourite? Which assets are "money" assets? Would that include only your bank account, or also your mutual funds?

If you want someone to look after things after you're gone, or you have specific ideas about who gets what, you need a will. You do not need a piece torn off a notebook, scribbled and crossed out, and crumpled into your sock drawer. Except in cases of dire need where there is just no opportunity to get the document done right, see a lawyer and get a proper will. If things are really super simple (i.e. you don't have a business, a step-child, a disabled child, a minor child, an estranged child, more than one piece of real estate, a common law spouse, assets joint with your children, or your kids' names on your assets) then you should at least use a will kit.

I have no doubt that the person who leaves a handwritten, two-line note thinks he or she is helping the situation. I believe the thought process is "it's better than nothing". Unfortunately, it is usually exactly the opposite.

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