In a Superior Court case, Litevich v. Probate Court, a LegalZoom was held invalid for failing to comply with the requirements of the Statute of Wills C.G.S.A section 45a-251. The plaintiff in the case, a proposed beneficiary under the LegalZoom attempted to have the will probated although it was not witnessed nor signed. The court held that the lack of those requirements was not simply a “harmless error” and therefore the will was invalid. Instead, the court held valid a will some 20 years older which gave nothing to the plaintiff.
The facts of this case were simple. The decedent had no children, was not married, and met the plaintiff in 2000 while working at Yale. Around 2011, the decedent fell ill due to her habit of being a heavy smoker. When there were little signs of her health improving she sought to update her will but decided to use LegalZoom instead of contacting an attorney. Plaintiff maintained decedent chose this method to save money.
After completing the will online the decedent had to provide personal information, give numerous confirmations to LegalZoom, and electronically sign that the wishes stated were indeed hers. Once completed, decedent paid LegalZoom and they mailed her the documents. Unfortunately, decedent was in the hospital when the documents arrived and plaintiff received them for her. Instead of getting the will signed, they attempted to have a notary present because they believed one was needed in order for the will to be valid. A notary is not required by statute in Connecticut.
A notary was not available until decedent fell into such a state of health that she did not have the legal capacity necessary to sign a legally binding document. The will was left with plaintiff unsigned upon decedent’s death. Plaintiff contends that the LegalZoom will is binding and that her electronic signature and confirmation online should satisfy the Statute of Wills.
The Court’s Analysis
The court began its analysis by laying out Connecticut law which states as follows: § 45a–251, provides: “A will or codicil shall not be valid to pass any property unless it is in writing, subscribed by the decedent and attested by two witnesses, each of them subscribing in the testator’s presence; but any will executed according to the laws of the state or country where it was executed may be admitted to probate in this state and shall be effectual to pass any property of the decedent situated in this state.”
“[O]ur [S]tatute [of Wills] amounts to a positive rule for the transmission of property, which must be complied with, as a complete act at the time of execution, or never, so far as the act of the testator is concerned.” (Emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) Hatheway v. Smith, 79 Conn. 506, 511, 65A, 1058 (1907).
The statute has, from its inception, been treated as an act that “permits a disposition of property by will upon compliance with the prescribed conditions.” (Emphasis added.) Id. Thus, to be valid, a will must strictly comply with the requirements of the statute. See Gardner v. Balboni, 218 Conn. 220, 225, 588 A.2d 634 (1991); see also Hatheway v. Smith, supra, 79 Conn. 511 (Statute of Wills “prohibitory and exhaustive”). The statute is designed to “effectuate the policies of safeguarding titles and frustrating fraudulent claims.” Starcez v. Kida, 183 Conn. 41, 45 n. 2, 438 A.2d 1157 (1981).
The Court’s Decision
The court followed the law strictly and succinctly stated, “the language of § 45a–251 plainly provides that for any testamentary instrument to be valid it must be subscribed by the decedent and attested by two witnesses in the decedent’s presence. Gardner v. Balboni, supra, 218 Conn. 225. In the present case, the will is not subscribed by the decedent or two witnesses. Accordingly, the court concludes that the Legalzoom will fail to satisfy the statute.”
Although the court made this finding, the plaintiff still attempted to have the will probated by means of the harmless error doctrine. This doctrine “provides that a testamentary instrument is not invalid for failure to satisfy the execution formalities of a given jurisdiction if the proponent of the will can establish by clear and convincing evidence that the testator intended the document to be his or her will.
See Uniform Probate Code, § 2–503, p. 141 (“Although a document … was not executed in compliance with [the formalities for execution of a will], the document or writing is treated as if it had been executed in compliance … if the proponent of the document or writing establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document or writing to constitute … the decedent’s will …”); 1 Restatement (Third), supra, § 3.03, p. 217 (“A harmless error in executing a will may be excused if the proponent establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent adopted the document as his or her will”).”
The Harmless Error Rule
No court in Connecticut has decided to adopt the harmless error rule and neither has the Connecticut Legislature in C.G.S.A. 45a-251. When speaking on the doctrine the court said even if it was to apply, “[i]n applying [the harmless error doctrine] to particular cases, a hierarchy of sorts has been found to emerge among the formalities.”
For example, “[t]he requirement of a writing is so fundamental to the purpose of the execution formalities that it cannot be excused as harmless under the principle of [the] Restatement. Only a harmless error in executing a document can be excused …” (Emphasis in original.) Even then, “[a]mong those defects in execution that can be excused, the lack of a signature is the hardest to excuse. An unsigned will raises a serious but not insurmountable doubt about whether the testator adopted the document as his or her will.”
Following the Harmless Error Doctrine
Instead of clearing adopting or rejecting the doctrine, the court concluded the following: “were the court to agree with the plaintiff that Connecticut law allows for the harmless error doctrine, it would not apply to the facts of this case. As the defendant observes, and as confirmed by the commentary to 1 Restatement (Third), supra, § 3 .03, within the harmless error doctrine exists a “hierarchy” of defects. Failure to sign a will at all, as with the case presently before the court, is considered by those states that have used the doctrine to be one of the most difficult defects to overcome. Id.
Therefore, even if Connecticut were to follow the doctrine, it would still be a stretch to apply it to facts such as those presently before the court, where the will was signed by neither the decedent nor any witnesses. The “electronic signature” claimed by the plaintiff is not sufficient because, even if electronic signing were allowed by § 45a–251, a question the court does not now decide, the signature does not appear on the face of the will. Accordingly, the court rejects the plaintiff’s arguments relating to the harmless error doctrine.”
As you can see, sometimes LegalZoom is not all it’s cracked up to be. Truly nothing can beat the experience and know-how of a lawyer who has dealt with Connecticut wills, trusts, and estates. Although at times expensive, the cost can be balanced against the goals it achieves. For example, this case. The sad story of the decedent who should have had her current last wishes carried out, not the wishes she made some two decades prior. Although LegalZoom may be a helpful resource in some instances, it does not in any way provide a substitute for an attorney. But don’t take our word for it, here is LegalZoom’s disclaimer from their own website in full:
LegalZoom is not a law firm, and the employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney. LegalZoom’s legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.
LegalZoom.com, Inc. (“LegalZoom”) is a registered and bonded legal document assistant, #0104, Los Angeles County (exp. 12/13) and is located at 101 N. Brand Blvd., 11th Floor, Glendale, CA 91203. LegalZoom cannot provide legal advice and can only provide self-help services at your specific direction.
LegalZoom is not permitted to engage in the practice of law. LegalZoom is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.
LegalZoom provides an online legal portal to give visitors a general understanding of the law, as well as to provide an automated software solution to individuals who choose to prepare their own legal documents. To that extent, the site publishes general information on legal issues commonly encountered.
LegalZoom’s document service also includes a review of your answers for completeness, spelling and grammar, as well as internal consistency of names, addresses and the like. At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. LegalZoom and its services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.
Although LegalZoom takes every reasonable effort to ensure that the information on our website and documents are up-to-date and legally sufficient, the legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance.
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