Jane Armbruster was a retired nurse with no children, and was a devoted aunt to her nieces and nephews. She had a formal will dividing all of her $1 million estate equally between them.
After she died, her will was located, as was a letter she later wrote to one nephew that said that she was “very pleased with the work done by the Feed the Hungry Food Bank” and that she expected “they should receive something from my estate”. She also wrote that “this letter should help and assist you with the division of my estate”.
Because the letter was dated, in Jane’s own handwriting, and used will-like language, the Feed the Hungry Food Bank took the position that it was a valid holograph will, and that it should revoke the earlier formal will in favour of the nieces and nephews.
The family believed that the letter was simply a handwritten note with no legal effect and that the formal will should prevail.
They were surprised to learn that a court would likely decide the situation had arisen because of their aunt’s mistake, and that her estate would bear the costs of the litigation, which could be substantial.
Rather than take an “all or nothing approach”, the charity and the family agreed to mediate their dispute. Over the course of the two-day mediation, the parties settled their differences, with the family agreeing to a distribution of 25% of the estate’s value to the charity. The end result? The charity gained the certainty of an immediate and sizable donation, the family maintained a large portion of the estate, and litigation costs to the estate were minimized, saving tens of thousands of dollars.