The Estate of Robyn Lewis reported in the Watertown Daily Times presents a state of facts perfect for a bar examination question. When Robyn Lewis and her husband James Simmons divorced in Texas in 1966, Robyn retained ownership of a home in upstate New York. Even though the couple had executed “mirror” wills (in which each left his or her entire estate to the other) prior to their divorce, it is well-established that the each was effectively disinherited by the divorce. Robyn’s will provided that if she was predeceased by her husband, her father in law James R Simmons would be her executor and sole heir.
In 2007, Robyn made a new will leaving her two brothers as her beneficiaries. Evidently the will was in a large clearly marked envelope which was given to a neighbor for safekeeping. Unfortunately, Robyn passed away at the young age of 43 and when no one in her family found her will, her brothers applied for and received Letters of Administration. The plot thickened when her ex Googled her by chance, only t0 learn that she had died. Although he could no l0nger take the inheritance provided for in Robyn’s will, there was no such restriction on his father who then produced the original document and applied for letters Testamentary in New York.
Robyn’s brothers objected to this and , although the will she executed in 2007 was apparently lost, the neighbor gave what the court described as credible testimony to support the existence of the will and that it had disappeared in her safekeeping and her friend had not herself revoked it. Nonetheless the Surrogate ultimately revoked the Letters of Administration granted to the Lewis brothers and admitted the earlier Texas will to probate, naming James R Simmons (Robyn’s former father in law) as executor. The Surrogate, as well as the Appellate Division also noted that there were issues arising out of the fact that Texas law might also have applied here.
So now this rather twisted set of facts will be decided by the Court of Appeals. On one hand, your lawblogger finds it hard to believe that given that two teams of lawyers will be locked in combat over a relatively small -$200,000- estate without somebody realizing that there should be an agreeable number out there to serve as a base for a settlement. On the other hand, I cannot help but look at the myriad of interesting issues in this “lost will” case and wonder how the highest court will resolve them. For sure there will be some precedents set here.