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In re Estate of Zeno

December 16, 2003

IN RE ESTATE OF: LEANTHA ZENO, DECEASED


Ramsey County District Court File No. P6-02-5563

Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge, Minge, Judge, and Crippen, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Signature requirements for execution of a self-proved will, conclusively presumed by law, include the statutory mandates that the witnesses saw either the signing of the will as required by law or saw the testator's acknowledgment of that signature or the acknowledgment of the will.

2. The conclusive presumption that a self-proved will complies with signature requirements for execution can be overcome with a showing of fraud or forgery affecting the testator's acknowledgment or the attached affidavits.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Crippen, Judge*fn1

Reversed and remanded

OPINION

Appellant, decedent's grandchild and the sole beneficiary under her will, seeks review of a trial court order denying him informal probate of the will on the ground that it was not properly executed. Respondent furnished evidence to the court that the witnesses did not see the signing of the will or the testatrix's acknowledgment of her signature or her acknowledgment of the will. Because the execution requirement at the root of the trial court's holding is one of "statutory signature" requirements for execution of a self-proved will, the integrity of which is conclusively presumed by statute, we reverse and remand.

FACTS

On March 12, 1993, Leantha Zeno executed a will. The contents of the will provided that appellant Joseph Moore, one of Zeno's nine grandchildren, was the sole beneficiary of her estate. The will was prepared and notarized by an attorney, and the lawyer's wife and daughter-in-law signed as witnesses. The witnesses and Zeno also executed a paragraph pursuant to Minn. Stat. §á524.2-504, which purported to make the will a self-proved will.

Zeno died in May 2002, the will was subsequently filed with the Ramsey County Probate Court, and appellant was informally appointed personal representative of Zeno's estate. Shortly thereafter, respondent Amy Moore, Zeno's granddaughter, filed a petition for formal adjudication of intestacy, contending that the will was invalid because it was not properly executed.

At the hearing, the scrivener's daughter-in-law testified that at the time she signed the will as a witness, Zeno was not present. This witness stated that Zeno was in office space the lawyer maintained in his home, which was not visible from the room where she and the lawyer's wife were sitting. This witness testified that the lawyer brought the will into the room occupied by the two witnesses and that they signed the will despite not having seen her signatures, heard her acknowledgement of either her signature or the will, or even having met Zeno. This witness also testified that the lawyer did not notarize the document in her presence, and that the witnesses were not present at any time when the attorney discussed any provisions of the will with Zeno. The essence of this testimony was confirmed in an affidavit of the lawyer's wife.

Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the trial court determined that the purported will did not meet the requirements of Minn. Stat. ยง 524.2-502 (2002) because it was not signed in the presence of the witnesses, nor did Zeno acknowledge her signature to the witnesses. The court granted the petition for intestacy and ...


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