Buttiglieri and Zawideh Successful in $4.2 Million Settlement Over Will Dispute
Kemp Klein Attorneys Joseph P. Buttiglieri and Robert S. Zawideh successfully represented the the plaintiffs in a case in which they were disinherited. This was a complex will contest involving a solitary man who died with no wife or children. The decedent never owned real estate, a car, a phone or a computer. He had no recent relationship with his two nieces, who were his only heirs.
When he died, his estate was worth approximately $21,000,000. Three years before he died, the decedent became a ward of the court. At the time, everyone, including decedent, believed he did not have a will. During the course of the guardianship and conservatorship, the decedent told a psychiatrist that he did not have or want a will and repeated this in two independent psychological exams. Before the wardship, he said as much to his financial advisors. Both psychologists reported that decedent had testamentary capacity. The conservator informed the court of his belief that there was no estate plan, and whoever was in charge would have to make sure the ward had one whether he wanted one or not.
The court appointed an attorney to assist the ward in preparing an estate plan. From 2018 to 2020, the court-appointed attorney drafted multiple wills, three of which were signed, all with varying dispositions of his property, and all of which expressly disinherited his heirs. One of the wills left two recently hired caregivers over $5 million each. The last will left his entire estate to several charities with which the decedent never had a relationship. After he died, the nieces objected to the probate of the last known, proffered will, arguing that he died intestate.
Thereafter, another charity came forward with a nonholographic unwitnessed document they claimed to be a will. Due to the numerous wills executed by the decedent, a significant concern was the issue of dependent relative revocation, which could have resulted in a separate jury trial over each individual will.
After hotly contested litigation, all the parties agreed to a 60/40 split of the estate, with the 40% group (who weren’t in the final will), arbitrating their claims to the balance of the 40%. After several days of arbitration, the 40% group asked the arbitrator to act as a mediator, at which point the case settled, with a substantial award for the disinherited nieces.
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.