The Florida District Court of Appeals recently applied a little known doctrine called the Doctrine of Dependent Relative Revocation in the case of In Re Estate of Murphy to save an estate from passing through intestacy.
The owner of the estate was Virginia Murphy. Mrs. Murphy died in 2006 and was predeceased by her parents and husband. She also died without any siblings or children. In the years before she passed, Mrs. Murphy executed a number of wills that were prepared by her longtime attorney Jack S. Carney, including the last will she executed in 1994. The 1994 will named Mr. Carey as personal representative of Mrs. Murphy’s estate; and it purported to leave the bulk of that estate to Mr. Carey, Gloria DuBois (Mr. Carey’s legal assistant), and George Tornwall (Mrs. Murphy’s accountant, who died the year before Mrs. Murphy passed away).
Upon learning of the probate proceedings, Mrs. Murphy’s second cousin, Jacqueline “Jackie” Rocke, a devisee under one of Mrs. Murphy’s prior wills, filed an objection to the residuary devises in the 1994 will. In her objection, Ms. Rocke alleged undue influence on the part of Mr. Carey and Ms. DuBois over Mrs. Murphy. After a lengthy trial process the Court agreed with Ms. Roche and held Mr. Carey and Ms. DuBois had, in fact, exerted undue influence through their confidential, fiduciary, and personal relationships with Ms. Murphy in order to become residuary devisees of her estate.
The lower court further held the majority of the estate would then pass through intestate succession. Thus, the assets were ordered to be passed as if there were no will at all. When no will is present, the assets of an estate will pass according to the laws of the state of Florida.
Mr. Carey and the other recipients of 1994 appealed this decision and argued the assets should not pass by intestate succession, but rather the court should have applied the little known Doctrine of Dependent Relative Revocation. The doctrine states that where a testator makes a new will revoking a former valid will, and it later appears the new will is invalid, the old will may be re-established on the grounds that the revocation was dependent upon the validity of the new will, and the testator would prefer the old will to his or her assets passing intestacy.
Mrs. Murphy executed six wills between the years of 1992 and 1994 and the court used the doctrine to examine if the same undue influence had tainted the previous will as it had the 1994 will. The court found a will executed in 1992 to be untainted from the undue influence, so the court ordered this will to control the estate rather than let the assets pass through intestate succession.
This ruling is significant because it shows Florida Probate courts would much rather a person’s assets pass through a valid will to meet the intent of the testator as closely as possible. The court in In Re Macomber stated “the rule seeks to avoid intestacy where a will has once been duly executed…” The court In re Estate of Pratt noted that, “the application of this doctrine would give rise to the rebuttable presumption that the testator would have preferred to revive his earlier charitable bequests rather than let the property go by intestacy.”
Florida courts seem to agree with the intention of the doctrine and that the issue for a will dispute should always be what the testator would have wanted. If a court had ruled a will to be invalid the decision in this case has now set a precedent that Florida Probate courts should look to older wills first to avoid disregarding a testator’s intent completely.
About the author
David Goldman, Esq. is an estate planning lawyer at the Law Office of David M. Goldman. Mr. Goldman has over 20 years of business experience and with his broad business background, he concentrates in the areas of business formations, business transactions, elder law, and estate planning, and asset protection. Mr. Goldman limits his practice to Florida and Federal law. David can be reached by phone at (904) 685-1200 or by email.