Lost or Destroyed Wills in New York State

blog photo 91412.jpgWhen an estate in New York is probated in Surrogate’s Court , it is a legal requirement to submit the original signed will as part of the Court filing. On occasion, the original will intended to be submitted may be lost or destroyed. There are several potential reasons for the original being unavailable, perhaps it is simply misplaced, a person adversely affected by the will may have intentionally destroyed the document or the decedent decided that the will no longer conformed to his wishes for the disposition of his property and destroyed the document prior to his demise.

Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 1407, the statute that governs probate proceedings in New York State, provides solutions to this situation. In New York State, it is presumed that a will has been revoked if the original can no longer be located, particularly if it was signed and the original was known to be kept in the testator’s possession. The person proposing to have a copy or a draft of a will admitted to probate needs to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the will has not been revoked, that the will was executed as required by New York State law, and that the testator had capacity to make the will, which was entered into without fraud or undue influence. At least two credible witnesses are then required to testify as to the provisions of the will or a copy or draft of the will that is true and complete is to be submitted to the Court. A photocopy of the will may then be admitted to probate in this instance if it is demonstrated that the original will was not last in the possession of the decedent. However, the fact that the testator possessed a fully executed copy of the will at his death will not prevent said copy from being admitted to probate.

Further, if the will was lost or destroyed by a cause not of the decedent’s act, the Surrogate’s Court will be likely to admit the will to probate. The witnesses may indicate that the will was destroyed without the knowledge or consent of the testator or that the will was destroyed when the testator was under undue influence or without mental capacity to revoke. Acceptable causes of destruction for these purposes include a fire at the facility where the will was stored. The recent anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 reminds us that storage locations were also destroyed on that day and that important documents such as wills were also ruined. If the proponents of the will can show that the attorney who drafted the will or the bank with the safe deposit box holds the original, but for some reason cannot or will not release same, the Court will be likely to admit a copy of the document to probate.

When supervising the execution of wills , we discuss safeguards for the custody of important documents with our clients. In some cases, we recommend that our clients allow us to hold their documents in our safe deposit box and that they inform their family of the location. This arrangement is likely to prevent lost documents. Our firm is experienced in navigating these issues and is prepared to advise its clientele in a manner best suited to individual requirements.