Estate of Royal, Matter of

Decision Date27 January 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91SC228,91SC228
Citation826 P.2d 1236
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF Clarence ROYAL, Deceased. Waynetta NEAL, Petitioner, v. Clarence ROYAL, Jr., William Royal, Robert Wayne Royal, and Marshall G. Royal, Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Bradley, Campbell, Carney & Madsen, P.C., Laura J. Vogelgesang, Golden, for petitioner.

Hutchinson, Black, Hill & Cook, James England, Forrest E. Cook, Heather Ryan, Boulder, for respondents.

Chief Justice ROVIRA delivered the Opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to determine whether a will is validly executed when witnesses to the testator's signing of the will do not themselves sign the document until after the death of the testator. The court of appeals adopted a rule that allows attestation of a will after the testator's death upon a showing of exceptional circumstances which make it impossible or extremely impractical for the witnesses to sign the instrument before the testator's death. In re Matter of Royal, 813 P.2d 790, 792 (Colo.App.1991). Because we find that the policy concerns underlying legislative enactment of formal execution requirements are compromised by allowing signing after the testator's death, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals but decline to adopt the rule of exceptional circumstances.

I

The core facts are not disputed. On October 6, 1988, Clarence Royal dictated a will to his daughter, Waynetta Neal, who was visiting Royal in Denver from Dallas, Texas. Neal handwrote the will and Royal signed it. The document was not signed by any witnesses. In his will, Royal left $1 to each of his other six children or stepchildren and the remainder of his estate to Neal. 1 Royal died in January 1989.

Four days after Royal's death, Neal filed a petition for probate of the will and appointment of herself as personal representative. The will remained unsigned by any witnesses. Four of Royal's sons filed an objection to Neal's petition. Additionally, the objectors requested the court enter a summary judgment finding that the will advanced by Neal was invalid and inadmissible to probate, that Royal's estate was an intestate estate, and that the court appoint one of the objectors as personal representative.

Approximately four months later, in response to the motion for summary judgment, two of the decedent's neighbors filed affidavits stating that they were present at the time Royal signed the will and they were willing to now sign as attesting witnesses once they could review the document for proper identification. A hearing was held on the motion for summary judgment. According to Neal, the neighbors were not asked to sign the will at the time they witnessed Royal's signing of the document because Neal and her husband, a Texas notary public, thought that it was necessary that the witnesses sign in the presence of a Colorado notary. Since Neal did not have the opportunity to have the document notarized before her return to Texas, she took the document back to Dallas with her. 2

In granting the motion for summary judgment, the probate court found that the will did not qualify as a holographic instrument and that the execution was fatally deficient because there were no attesting witnesses' signatures affixed before the testator's death.

The court of appeals affirmed on different grounds. The court found that "attestation of a will after the testator's death is permissible only upon a showing of exceptional circumstances making it impossible or extremely impractical [for the witnesses] to have signed the instrument before the testator's death." The court found, however, that there were no exceptional circumstances shown here to justify post-mortem signing of the will by the witnesses and that the document was, therefore, invalid as a will. In re Matter of Royal, 813 P.2d 790, 792 (Colo.App.1991).

II

Section 15-11-502, 6B C.R.S. (1987), addresses the signature requirements for both the testator and the witnesses:

[E]very will shall be in writing signed by the testator or in the testator's name by some other person in the testator's presence and by his direction, and shall be signed by at least two persons each of whom witnessed either the signing or the testator's acknowledgment of the signature or of the will.

(Emphasis added.) The statute does not dictate when the witnesses must sign, but only that they must sign and must have witnessed either the testator's signature or acknowledgement of the will or signature. While there is no doubt that the statute does permit signing by the witnesses after the testator has signed and outside the presence of the testator, see In re Estate of Mikeska, 140 Mich.App. 116, 362 N.W.2d 906, 910 (1985); In re Estate of Kavcic, 341 So.2d 278, 282 (Fla.App.1977), whether the death of the testator is the deadline for affixation of witnesses' signatures is an issue of first impression in Colorado.

The probate court found that, despite the silence of the statute as to whether attesting witnesses must sign before the testator's death, such a requirement is "necessarily inherent" in the attestation process. We agree.

A

Since the statute is silent, we must abide by the well-settled rule of statutory construction that statutes should be construed to effectuate the General Assembly's intent and the beneficial purpose of the legislative measure. People v. Davis, 794 P.2d 159, 180 (Colo.1990); People v. Terry, 791 P.2d 374, 376 (Colo.1990).

The Colorado provision is identical to section 2-502 of the Uniform Probate Code (prior to the 1990 revision of section 2-502) 3. The commissioners' comment to this Uniform Probate Code provision states:

The formalities for execution of a witnessed will have been reduced to a minimum.... There is no requirement that the testator publish the document as his will or that he request the witnesses to sign, or that the witnesses sign in the presence of the testator or of each other.... The intent is to validate wills which meet the minimal formalities of the statute.

Unif.Prob.Code § 2-502, (cmt.), 8 U.L.A. 107 (1983). Colorado adopted the Uniform Probate Code in 1974. Prior to that, more formalities were required for valid will execution in Colorado. 4

Yet, despite the decrease in the number of formalities, certain formalities for execution persist. Those formalities require strict adherence in order to prevent fraud, see In re Estate of Peters, 107 N.J. 263, 526 A.2d 1005, 1010 (1987), because statutes governing execution are designed to safeguard and protect the decedent's estate. In re McGary's Estate, 127 Colo. 495, 496, 258 P.2d 770, 771 (1953). See also 2 William J. Bowe & Douglas H. Parker, Page on Wills § 19.4 at 66 (3d ed. 1960) ("The purpose of these statutes is to make it certain that testator has a definite and complete intention to pass his property, and to prevent, as far as possible, fraud, perjury, mistake and the chance of one instrument being substituted for another."). In Colorado, the legislature retained the requirement that, for a valid will, two witnesses must sign. This indicates legislative concern that this safeguard of validity of the instrument be preserved.

It has long been recognized that a will speaks as of the date of the testator's death. Heinneman v. Colorado College, 150 Colo. 515, 522, 374 P.2d 695, 698 (1962). The effect of this rule has been limited by several cases holding that the rule applies to the operation of the will and not its construction. Id.; First Nat'l Bank of Denver v. Denver United States Nat'l Bank, 409 F.2d 108, 112 (10th Cir.1969); Miller v. Weston, 67 Colo. 534, 538-39, 189 P. 610, 612 (1920); Matter of Daigle's Estate, 642 P.2d 527, 528 (Colo.App.1982). In other words, the validity of the will should be construed under the laws in place at the time of its execution. At the time Royal executed his will, the execution requirements under section 15-11-502 were the same as at the time of his death. Therefore, if the will speaks as of the date of the testator's death, it follows that the document should be complete at that time. Consequently, we adopt the bright line rule that witnesses' signatures should be affixed to the document at least by the time it becomes operative, the death of the testator.

B

Other jurisdictions that have adopted statutes identical to Uniform Probate Code section 2-502 prior to the 1990 revision have addressed this issue. In In re Estate of Flicker, 215 Neb. 495, 339 N.W.2d 914 (1983), the court found it unreasonable to permit a witness to sign after the testator's death because that would "erode the efficacy of the witnessing requirement as a safeguard against fraud or mistake." Id. at 915. Since the decedent is not present to confirm or reject the validity of the instrument, the court found that requiring witnesses to sign before the testator's death minimized the potential for "miscarriages of justice." Id. See also In re Estate of Mikeska, 140 Mich.App. 116, 362 N.W.2d 906, 910 (1985) (agreeing with the rationale and the holding in Flicker ).

We are persuaded by the rationale in Rogers v. Rogers, 71 Or.App. 133, 691 P.2d 114, 115 (1984). The court reasoned that, since attestation is a formal requirement for execution of a will and a will takes effect upon the testator's death, the formalities of execution must have been met at the time of that death in order for the will to be valid as of the time from which it is operative. Consequently, a decedent whose will remains unsigned by witnesses at the time of his death dies intestate. Id.

Conversely, in In re Estate of Peters, 107 N.J. 263, 526 A.2d 1005 (1987), after discussing Flicker, the court declined to adopt a bright line rule requiring witnesses' signatures before the testator's death. Without further elaboration, the court recognized that, although the facts in the present case did not present such a situation, there may be cases where affixation of the witnesses' signatures after the testator's death would...

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