As previously discussed on this Blog, a common fact scenario in estate, trust and probate lawsuits involves an eleventh-hour change in a dying person's final wishes regarding their property. Quite often the last-minute decision appears legitimate, although occasionally there is an aura of suspicious facts and circumstances surrounding the event which arises to the level of an "inheritance theft." Frequently the change in question is expressed in the form of a handwritten note, and courts are commonly called upon to rule whether or not such "wishes" will actually be enforced.
On January 27, 2010, the Arkansas Court of Appeals addressed a somewhat similar situation in the case of Nunneman v. Estate of Donald T. Grubbs, et al, Case No. 2010 Ark.App. 75. Specifically, Mr. Grubbs had named Ms. Nunnenman as beneficiary of his IRA, and a few days before his death evidently called a lawyer to his hospital bed and executed a will, leaving all of his property to his mother, Ms. Grubbs. She then asked the Court to freeze certain IRA monies contending that she had discovered a 2005 note in Mr. Grubbs' bible which stated: "My Will. I Donnie Grubbs want all of my estate All IRA and any SBC Telco and all other assets and worldly goods to go to my Mother Shervena Grubbs. Being of sound mind. Donnie Grubbs." Ms. Grubbs alleged that she had found the note in the presence of a coworker, but that witness claimed that she had not known of the note's existence before the trial.
After considering the evidence, the trial court ruled that the handwritten note should have the effect of changing the IRA beneficiary. Ms. Nunnenman appealed and the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that it was clear error to find an effective change of the IRA beneficiary. Specifically, the Court pointed to the conflicts in the testimony regarding the discovery of the note and also focused upon the fact that the very person who discovered the note was the same person who would end up benefitting from its discovery. The Court also opined that it was significant that while Mr. Grubbs had undertaken steps to call a lawyer to come to his bedside, he had not taken similar measures to change his IRA beneficiary.
In sum, this case is a good example of the heavy burden that a party has when attempting to prove a change in property disposition by means of a handwritten document. As a general matter the Court will need to be presented with a strong showing of evidence before favorably considering such a request.