Ante-mortem probate addresses a glaring deficiency with the post-mortem probate model prevalently used in the United States. In post-mortem probate contests the key witness—the testator—is deceased, leaving the courts with only indirect evidence of the testator’s capacity and freedom from undue influence. The relative ease with which individuals dissatisfied with the testator’s choice of beneficiaries may manipulate this indirect evidence encourages spurious will contests. In ante-mortem probate the testator executes a will and then asks for a declaratory judgment ruling that the will is valid, that all technical formalities were satisfied, that the testator had the required testamentary capacity to execute a will, and was not under undue influence. The beneficiaries of the will and the heirs apparent are given notice so they may contest the probate of the will. In addition to providing greater certainty to the testator of the will’s validity, the procedure makes will contests less likely. But ante-mortem probate is not without its price: The ante-mortem process may be extremely disruptive to the testator and the testator’s family. The testator may not wish to disclose the contents of the will nor to face the potential embarrassment that may occur if testamentary capacity is litigated. It involves additional costs and may raise due process and conflict of laws problems.
Susan G. Thatch’s article concisely discusses the advantages and disadvantages of implementing an ante-mortem probate statute in New Jersey and, by analogy, in any state. The article focuses on the debate of whether allowing ante-mortem probate is useful to testators or harmful to families by reviewing the ante-mortem probate model currently used by five states, as well as other models which scholars have suggested. The article takes the view that if the suggested statute is implemented, it should supplement instead of supplant traditional probate options already available to New Jersey citizens. Figuring out the best way to ensure peace of mind for the testator while fully considering the arguments for and against an ante-mortem probate statute forms the foundation of the article.
The article describes three principal models suggested for successfully structuring and implementing ante-mortem probate—the contest model, the conservatorship model, and the administrative model. Although all currently enacted state enabling statutes adopt the contest model, Ms. Thatch explains how each of the models operate and the benefits and disadvantages of each one. Overall, all of the models allow a court to determine if “the testator had adequate testamentary capacity and was free from undue influence” while the testator is still alive. The difference between the models is the extent to which beneficiaries and heirs are required to be notified and represented. By examining both the model currently used and those suggested by scholars, Ms. Thatch provides a comprehensive look at how New Jersey could structure its statute.
Ms. Thatch then analyzes the statutes in the five states where ante-mortem statutes is available—North Dakota, Ohio, Arkansas, Alaska, and New Hampshire. All of the states have statutes based on a variation of the contest model. Ms. Thatch acknowledges that North Dakota, Ohio, and Arkansas, states that have allowed ante-mortem probate since the 1970s, have reported a low usage of the ante-mortem probate procedure. However, Ms. Thatch explains that North Dakota and Ohio practitioners reported that it was valuable to have the statute available.
The article addresses how implementing an ante-mortem procedure in New Jersey would help practitioners have a valuable probate tool available to them. Although Ms. Thatch describes the current alternatives available to safeguard a testator’s intent, such as video-recording the will execution ceremony, creating an inter-vivos trust, using an inter-vivos transfer, and adding a no contest clause, the article explains why all of these options are not enough to ensure that the testator’s capacity will not be contested or that a beneficiary or heir will not claim undue influence.
In addressing the reasons for allowing ante-mortem probate, the article mentions the risk presented by the growing demographic of elderly citizens. Elderly citizens are at a greater risk of either being taken advantage of or having guardians inappropriately allocate or dispose of assets. Testators might benefit from having these pre-death probate disputes handled by ante-mortem probate. Additionally, ante-mortem probate can help ensure that the testator’s intent is not frustrated if the testator decides to depart from “deeply held societal values” when distributing assets. However, the article also mentions that the downside of allowing ante-mortem probate is that it can create family strife. The testator can determine whether the benefits of ante-mortem probate would exceed the potential difficulties. Because there are arguments for and against ante-mortem probate, the New Jersey Law Revision Committee will take into consideration the area of law and practitioners’ opinions before deciding whether the statute would be useful to testators and practitioners in New Jersey.
As a long-time advocate of ante-mortem probate, I highly recommend this article. Ms. Thatch makes well-reasoned arguments for allowing ante-mortem probate after considering both the value the statute could provide to testators and practitioners and the implications that may arise from its use.
[Special thanks to the outstanding assistance of Elizabeth Nanez, J.D. Candidate May 2016, Texas Tech University School of Law, for her assistance in preparing this review.]