The Case of the Will Written on a Cell Phone

Most often, practicing law isn’t as glamorous as it’s depicted in the movies, but occasionally, a case comes along that seems ripped right from the big screen. This case dubbed the “will on the phone case,” heard in the Michigan Court of Appeals, involves a suicide note, an estranged mother, and a ruling that according to Sandra Glazier of Lipson Nielson, P.C., conceivably opens a wide door for what constitutes a will.

In December 2015, a young man committed suicide, leaving behind a handwritten note stating, “My final note, my farewell is on my phone. The app should be open. […]” Indeed, on his cell phone a longer directive had been written outlining what the decedent wished to have done with his estate. The portion of the note in question was: “If at all possible, make sure that my trust fund goes to my half-sister Shella, and only her. Not my mother.”

The young man’s mother was his sole heir and stood to inherit the proceeds from his trust fund and other money. By the standard definition, the decedent’s note did not constitute a will. Nor was it dated or signed. However, a probate court ruled that the note constitutes a valid will.

The mother appealed the ruling, but to no avail. The Court of Appeals wrote: [T]he nature of decedent’s relationship with his mother, when read in conjunction with his clear directive that none of his money go to his mother, supports the conclusion that decedent intended for the electronic note to govern the posthumous distribution of his property to ensure that his mother, who would otherwise be his heir, did not inherit from him.

Glazier, in her case commentary, asserts that allowing “a notation on a cell phone, computer, tablet, the cloud, another electronic record, slip of paper/material and any other form of documentation” to serve as a will “may actually have an adverse effect on implementation of a decedent’s intent if such documentation is the result of undue influence, fraud, or an insane delusion.”

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia has not addressed this question and there is no statutory authority for admitting such a directive to probate under current West Virginia law, but the Michigan decision reflects a growing trend in admitting a questionable document to probate as a decedent’s will.

At WDHE, we recommend not leaving your estate to chance. Let us help you write a will that ensures your loved ones will be taken care of after you’re gone.

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