In re Estate of Murphy

In Re Estate of Murphy, 184 So.3d 1221 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016)

For anyone looking for a refresher on the doctrine of dependent relative revocation, this decision is a good read.  In this case, after 9 years of litigation, the Court ultimately determined that the probate court's failure to apply the doctrine of dependent relative revocation incorrectly resulted in the distribution of an estate worth $12 million to the decedent's intestate heirs rather than to the beneficiary of one of her prior wills.

The decedent had executed a series of wills prior to her death.  Each of those wills, while slightly varied, left a bequest to the Northwestern University (Go Wildcats!!) medical school, to the decedent's second cousin, to her attorney, to her attorney's assistant, and to her accountant. The decedent's second cousin challenged the decedent's last will (which divided her residuary among the attorney, assistant and accountant, and not her), alleging undue influence on the part of the decedent's lawyer and his assistant.  The probate court ruled that the lawyer and his assistant exerted undue influence on the decedent, and thus the residuary devises to them contained in the last will were void.  However, the probate court also ruled that the remainder of the provisions of the will were valid and would control the disposition of the remaining assets of the estate, and thus held that the residue of the estate passed by intestacy because the final will's revocation clause, revoking all prior wills, remained valid.

On appeal, the Court considered whether the probate court should have effectuated a prior residuary clause in favor of the cousin under the doctrine of dependent relative revocation.  The doctrine of dependent relative revocation, as adopted by the Florida Supreme Court, means that where a "testator makes a new will revoking a former valid one, and it later appears that the new one is invalid, the old will may be re-established on the ground that the revocation was dependent on the validity of the new one, [the] testator preferring the old will to intestacy." Stewart v. Johnson, 194 So.2d 869, 870 (Fla. 1940).  

The presumption of dependent relative revocation arises where there is a showing of similarity between a decedent's testamentary instruments.  This similarity is construed broadly, and does not mean that the specific beneficiaries have to be the same.  The fact that certain people are consistently not beneficiaries of the decedent's testamentary documents can be enough.  The probate court may consider any admissible extrinsic evidence when measuring similarity for purposes of the doctrine's application.  Once the doctrine's presumption arises, pursuant to F.S. 90.302(2) and 733.107(2), the burden of proof then shifts to the opponent of the presumption to show that the testator held an independent, unaffected intention to revoke the otherwise affected will.

The Court held that because the party opposing the presumption could not prove that the last will's revocation clause was untainted by the same undue influence that infected its residuary clause and that the decedent had an independent intention to revoke all prior wills at the time she executed the last will so that the bulk of her estate would pass by intestacy, the revocation clause of the last will was also invalid.  Because the decedent's prior documents were deemed to be "sufficiently similar," and because the decedent seemed to prefer testacy over intestacy, the Court held that the residuary clause in a prior will leaving the decedent's estate to the cousin should have been honored rather than distributing the residuary through intestacy.  


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