Testators may want to keep careful track of who has copies of their will and where those copies are. If only a copy of a will – and not the original – is found, it may raise a question about whether the testator destroyed the original in an attempt to revoke it. Such was the argument made by the caveators in Johnson v. Fitzgerald. Let’s see why the Georgia Supreme Court felt like a copy was good enough to admit to probate in solemn form.
The executor of an estate offered a copy of a will for probate in solemn form, requesting that it be admitted to probate upon proper proof. The original could not be found. The testator’s heirs at law filed a caveat alleging that the will had been revoked by the testator’s destruction of it.
Under Georgia law, if the original of a will cannot be found for probate, there is a presumption that the testator intended to revoke the will. But this presumption can be overcome if a copy is established by a preponderance of the evidence to be a true copy of the original and if it is established by a preponderance of the evidence that the testator did not intend to revoke the will. Here, there was “ample evidence” that the testator intended for provisions in his will to continue in force.
Under the propounded will, $50,000 was bequeathed to a church for the use of its cemetery fund, $50,000 was bequeathed to an individual, and the will named a trust which benefited a foundation as the residuary beneficiary. The Georgia Supreme Court highlighted the following evidence that supported a conclusion that the testator did not intend to revoke the will:
– The testator executed a document guiding the trust referenced in the will, and he later amended the trust;
– In discussions with his attorney about the trust amendment, the testator understood that his assets had grown to a point that the church named as the primary beneficiary of the trust might not have need for the full amount, and he wanted to give the trustees of the trust the flexibility to fund charitable contributions from the money that would pour over from the estate to the trust;
– The testator told the pastor of the church that he was leaving money for the cemetery fund in his will;
– The testator expressed disdain for what he considered his relatives’ greed, stating that he did not wish for them to have his money; and
– Prior wills were consistent with the propounded will insofar as they left money for the cemetery fund and excluded the caveators.