Kemp Klein

Buttiglieri and Feliksa Defeat Paper-Plate “Will” through Arbitration

Joseph P. Buttiglieri and Tracy L. Feliksa represented three brothers contesting the validity of a note written on a paper plate, which was purported to be their father’s last will and testament. The paper plate was kept in the daughter’s home and shown to her brothers only after her father’s death. The daughter would be the only one of the four children to benefit if the paper plate was determined to be the man’s will and was admitted to probate. The paper plate contained cryptic words that, if read as the daughter argued, would have required that the man’s liquid assets be used to pay-off the loans on his house and that the house be given to his daughter. It would have resulted in an effective disinheritance of his three sons.

Words written on a paper plate might serve as a valid Will under Michigan law, under one of three scenarios: (1) it is witnessed by at least two individuals and is signed by the testator, (2) it is a “holographic will” in which the material provisions are in the testator’s handwriting and it is signed and dated by the testator; or (3) it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document to be his Will. In this case, the paper plate was not witnessed and did not contain the full signature of the decedent- only his initials. The daughter argued that the paper plate still met Michigan’s holographic statute and that the father intended for the paper plate to be his Will.

Buttiglieri and Feliksa argued against admission of the paper-plate on the basis that (1) the initials did not meet the requirements of Michigan’s holographic statute;  (2) that the paper plate was the product of undue influence by the daughter, on whom the decedent had come to depend after his beloved wife’s death; and (3) that even if the plate was determined to be a testamentary document, the words on the plate did not make a devise of the decedent’s home to his daughter but rather were a list of directions for her to follow upon his death. Buttiglieri and Feliksa defeated a motion for summary disposition, and the parties proceeded to a two-day arbitration hearing.

The evidence presented was used to try to establish a presumption of undue influence by the daughter over the father- that he acted against his natural inclinations when writing the paper plate. Buttiglieri and Feliksa were able to demonstrate that although the father had a good relationship with each of his children, he became dependent on his daughter. Testimony from family, text messages, and old financial documents were used to illustrate the father’s severe depression after the death of his wife, his increasing social isolation and dependence on his daughter, and his fear of doing anything without her approval.

Buttiglieri and Feliksa also argued that the words on the paper plate lacked clarity of intention and could be interpreted as a list of instructions to the daughter, rather than a devise of the father’s house. They were able to discredit the daughter’s two surprise witnesses who testified that the father intended to leave his house to his daughter. One was a cousin who coincidentally also had been the beneficiary of a “surprise” deed, produced after death, devising a house from her grandmother. The other was a neighbor, who when cross-examined, changed his testimony. Opposing testimony was provided to support the sons’ position that the decedent and his late wife had always wanted their estate divided equally between the four children.

The arbitrator concluded that the evidence provided by the daughter was not convincing enough to show that the paper plate stood as a clear and accurate depiction of the decedent’s intent. Additionally, no evidence was provided to show that the decedent intended the initials to be his signature. The arbitrator agreed that the words on the plate were ambiguous, and did not clearly indicate that the decedent wanted his daughter to have his house after death. The paper plate was not admitted to probate, and the sons were able to share equally in their father’s estate.