Louisiana Court Promotes Liberal Construing of Will Execution Requirements

notepad_pad_paper_yellow-scaledWills and testaments often lead to family drama after a family member dies. Fights over control, money, and inheritance can lead to many legal and emotional battles. When those battles of power come to a legal setting, how do courts assess if a will has validly identified a new overseer of the estate?

Strouder Pelfrey died in August 2015 with a last will and testament in place. His son, Steven Pelfrey, later filed a petition requesting the trial court appoint him as the administrator and declare his father’s will and testament invalid. Steven argued that the will violated La. C.C. art. 1577 by lacking a sufficient attestation clause. Following Steven’s petition, Theresa Pelfrey filed a petition to probate the will and be appointed executrix as Strouder designated in his will. The trial court appointed Theresa executrix of the decedent’s estate, pending the result of Steven’s petition to be appointed administrator. The trial court later determined that Strouder’s will did not violate La. C.C. art. 1577, and denied Steven’s petition. Steven appealed that decision, bringing the case to the Second Circuit. 

Louisiana law states that the requirements for the execution of wills and testaments must be followed–otherwise, the testament is invalid. La. C.C. art. 1573. Strict adherence to these requirements ensures the will’s authenticity and protects wills from various issues, such as fraud or undue influence. Succession of Roussel, 373 So. 2d 155, 158 (La. 1979).

La. C.C. art. 1577 states that valid testaments must include the following: (1) the testator’s witnessed declaration that the document is the testament, (2) the testator’s signed name on each page and at the end of the testament, and (3) the notary and two witnesses’ signed declaration and the testator’s attestation that La. C.C. art. 1577 was followed in the drafting of the testament. This is an attestation clause. 

A valid will requires an attestation clause or clause of declaration in some form. These clauses exist to demonstrate that the will and testament were correctly executed under statutory requirements. However, the form of these clauses is not strictly outlined, and courts generally treat attestation clauses with some forgiveness, maintaining the validity of the will so long as the will substantially complies with the statutory requirements of La. C.C. art. 1577. In re Succession of Holbrook.

Strouder’s will contained two attestation clauses at the end, one to be signed by Strouder and one to be signed by the notary and witnesses. Steven argued that the notary and witness statement fails to state that the will was signed in the presence of the notary and witnesses and that failure means that the will does not meet the statutory requirements. However, Louisiana law suggests a presumption in favor of the will’s validity, and certain issues with the formality of the will must be highly compelling to counteract that presumption. In re Succession of Holbrook

Louisiana courts do not need attestation clauses to be strictly or formally written so long as the will substantially complies with the formal requirements of will execution, and because Strouder’s will still substantially complied with the statutory requirements, the Second Circuit determined that the will was still valid. Accordingly, the Second Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of Steven’s petition to be named administrator and invalidated the will. 

Additional Sources: Succession of Strouder Calvin Pelfrey

Written By Berniard Law Firm

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