The question of whether a handwritten note can be considered a valid will was recently put before the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. In short, where certain requirements are met, handwritten notes can be considered valid wills.
In Elkassem Estate (Re),1 at issue was a will executed in 2017 by an individual who passed away in 2020. This will, similar to a will previously executed in 2007, divided the deceased's estate equally amongst her three children (two sons and one daughter). The two sons were named as the personal representatives.
Five months following the deceased's passing, one of the sons discovered a handwritten note, allegedly written by the deceased. The note contained directions differing completely from those outlined in the will, and much more favourable to the two sons.
Correspondingly, the two sons took the position that the handwritten note was a valid will, or in the alternative, a handwritten codicil to the will. They submitted the will and note together for probate, with the note taking precedence in respect of the property it referred to, and the will to govern naming the personal representatives and distribution of all other property.
In contrast, the daughter of the deceased brought an application for advice and directions with respect to the deceased's estate, and sought to have her two brothers removed as personal representatives.
The Court of Queen's Bench's Analysis
The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench began their analysis by discussing s. 14 of the Wills and Succession Act,2 which sets out the requirements for a valid will. Section 14 states:
- a) The will must be in writing,
- b) The will must contain a signature of the testator that makes it apparent on the face of the document that the testator intended, by signing, to give effect to the writing in the document as the testator's will, and
- c) Subject to any order made under section 37, must be in accordance with section 15,16, or 17.3
Based on the evidence, the Court found that the handwritten note was signed by the deceased, and that, on its face, it looked like a holographic will.4
Ultimately then, the key question, pursuant to the legislation and jurisprudence, was whether the handwritten note contained a "deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to the disposal of property upon death, as shown by the document itself or by extrinsic evidence".5
The Court found that this bar was not met, providing a variety of reasons as to why:
- a) There was no date on the note;
- b) The note did not deal with personal representatives or residual beneficiaries;
- c) The note did not refer to the will to indicate an intention to change or revoke it;
- d) The note was not located with the will.
- e) The deceased used the same family lawyer to prepare her 2007 will, the 2017 will, and a late 2019 draft will changing the deceased's last name. All three of these documents divided the estate equally among the three children. In contrast, the handwritten note reflected a completely different distribution; and
- f) The son who found the note resided with the deceased his whole life. In questioning, he confirmed that the deceased confided in him and that he drove her to the lawyer's office on two occasions to provide instructions and sign her wills. Yet she said nothing to him about the note.6
Consequently, it was held that the handwritten note was not a valid holograph will or codicil, and thus just the will alone should be submitted to probate.7
On the personal representatives issue, the Court found that, prior to this application and prior to the discovery of the handwritten note, the two sons would have been in a conflict of interest. The sons clearly had indicated that they did not intend to distribute the deceased's estate as set out in the will. Although this finding lent itself towards naming the daughter as the logical substitute personal representative, this was found to be impractical because she lived in Lebanon. As a result, the Court held that the sons were to remain the personal representatives, and in the event that they did not carry out their fiduciary duties properly, a further application to remove them as personal representatives could be brought.8
The main takeaway from Elkassem Estate is that a handwritten note can be considered a will, so long as it contains a deliberate or fixed and final expression of intention as to the disposal of property upon death, as shown by the document itself or by extrinsic evidence. Examples of extrinsic evidence which may support such an intention include: the presence of a date on the note, reference to personal representatives or residual beneficiaries, if it refers to a will and indicates an intention to change or revoke it, if it is located alongside a will, and finally whether it appears to reflect completely different intentions from previously consistent estate planning documents. Of course, any evidence should always be reconciled against the circumstances of a particular case, as any one of these factors on its own may not be enough to decipher intention.
1. Elkassem Estate (Re), 2022 ABQB 279 [Elkassem Estate].
2. Wills and Succession Act, SA 2010, c W-12.2.
3. Elkassem, supra note 1 at para 27.
4. Ibid at para 36.
5. Ibid at paras 28-36.
6. Ibid at para 37.
7. Ibid at para 42.
8. Ibid at paras 38-40.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.