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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Doctor’s Revised Will Written on Index Card Rejected

A companion to a deceased sleep clinic founder cannot inherit one-fourth of his estate based on a revised will the psychologist wrote on an index card nearly 40 years after creating a formal will, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s law that eases the requirements for making a will does not eliminate another law seeking to prevent fraud by those who claim to have witnessed revisions to a will. Writing for the Court, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated that Ohio’s “voiding statute” applies to both formal wills and the looser “formally noncompliant” wills.

The decision reversed a Sixth District Court of Appeals decision allowing Juley Norman to be listed as a beneficiary to the estate of Dr. Joseph Shaffer. Shaffer, a psychologist who founded the Sleep Network Inc., a national consortium of sleep centers, died in 2015 in Toledo at age 87.

Two Wills Submitted to Probate Court
In 1967, Joseph Shaffer drafted a formal will indicating that if his wife died before him, his estate would pass through a trust to his two sons, Mark and Theodore (Terry) Shaffer. Joseph’s wife, died before him and son Terry admitted his will to the Lucas County Probate Court in 2015.

In 2016, following the deaths of Joseph Shaffer, Juley Norman filed a claim against the estate as a creditor for the care and services she provided to Joseph during his life. She submitted to the court a 3-by-5-inch notecard Joseph had written in her presence along with her own son, Zachary.

The card read:

Dec 22, 2006
My estate is not
completely settled
all of my sleep network
stock is to go to
Terry Shaffer
Juley Norman for
her care of me is to
receive ¼ of my estate
Terry is to be the
This is my will.

The card was only signed by Joseph Shaffer.

Executor Rejects Claim
Terry Shaffer, the administrator of his father’s estate, rejected the claim. Zachary, Juley Norman’s son, filed an application to the probate court to treat the notecard as Joseph’s will and to add his mother, Juley, to the list of those entitled to a share of the estate.

Under R.C. 2107.24, documents purported to be a will, which have not met the formal requirements of a will, can be admitted to probate court if certain requirements are met. The law essentially excuses the requirement that the maker of the will have two witnesses also sign the will to prove they saw the signature being applied by the will maker.

At a hearing before a magistrate, Juley testified to her close relationship with Joseph and the circumstances under which he wrote the notecard. She testified that Joseph referred to the document several times and instructed Zachary to keep it in a safe place.

The magistrate ruled that Zachary did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that the document was intended to be Joseph’s will. The probate court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation, and Juley appealed the decision to the Sixth District.

The Sixth District overruled the trial court and decided the notecard could be admitted. It also ruled that Ohio’s voiding statute regarding wills, R.C. 2107.15, does not apply when a probate court can determine from a hearing that the deceased intended to make one of the witnesses to a revised will a beneficiary of the will.

Terry Shaffer appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Will Requirements
Justice Donnelly explained the voiding statute was enacted to allow a will to be revised when one of the two required witnesses stands to gain from the revised will. The law protects against invalidating the entire will by simply eliminating the bequest to the “interested witness” and keeping the remaining bequests intact.

Juley, and the Sixth District, maintained the voiding statute does not apply when a will is admitted through the hearing process in R.C. 2107.24.

The Court explained that two laws govern the process of admitting a will, and separate processes govern disputes about the content of a will once it has been admitted. To admit a formal will to probate under R.C. 2107.03, the document must be in writing; signed by the will maker or signed by another at direction of the will maker; and signed by two witnesses who saw or heard the will maker sign it.

Under R.C. 2107.24, a document can be admitted as a will even if it didn’t follow the formal requirements. A probate court must conduct a hearing where clear and convincing evidence establishes that the document was the will maker’s intended will, signed by the will maker, and observed by two or more witnesses. The law provides a narrow exception to the formal will process by allowing a document to be considered a will even if the witnesses do not sign it, the opinion stated.

Terry Shaffer argued that even if the index card could be considered his father’s will, it would be subject to the voiding statute, the Court noted. Because only Juley and Zachary claim to have witnessed Joseph creating the will but they did not sign it, the voiding statute would eliminate Juley as a beneficiary. The Court agreed.

The opinion stated that R.C. 2107.15 applies to formal wills and nonformal wills. The law does not prevent Juley from having the notecard admitted as a will. However, once admitted, the voiding statute still eliminates any bequest to a witness if the witness was one of only two to observe the signing.

“The probate court correctly applied R.C. 2107.15 and determined that Juley Norman could not be included in the list of beneficiaries of Joseph Shaffer’s estate,” the Court concluded.

2019-0364. In re Estate of Shaffer, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-6672.

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