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Missing will leads to fight over inheritance

Peter Vieth//February 18, 2015

Missing will leads to fight over inheritance

Peter Vieth//February 18, 2015

LThe Supreme Court of Virginia will decide whether a missing will means an estranged son can collect a portion of his father’s $9 million estate.

The court will weigh arguments in a case that pits a widow and daughter against the child of an earlier marriage who contends the courts should consider the father’s will revoked.

After a two-day trial, Arlington County Circuit Judge William T. Newman Jr. ruled the law’s presumption of revocation was overcome by evidence suggesting the father never changed his mind about leaving his entire estate to his wife and then to his daughter.

Arlington businessman Jimmy Edmonds ran both a successful auto repair shop and a company that owned and leased a number of commercial properties, according to briefs in the appeal. He enjoyed golf and fishing and spent time at homes at the Maryland shore and in Florida.

When he died unexpectedly in his Florida home two years ago at age 69, his estate was estimated to be at least $9 million, according to the brief of the son, J. Christopher Edmonds.

Chris Edmonds now hopes to gain a share of the estate despite the fact that he was not included in his father’s 2002 will – or in two prior wills – and the fact that his father disavowed any family connection with him.

If Jimmy’s will is considered revoked, Chris would take one third under Virginia’s law on intestate succession.

The pleadings in the appeal made it clear that Jimmy Edmonds had deep and affectionate bonds with his second wife, Elizabeth, 68, and their daughter, Kelly, 35. Jimmy and Elizabeth had been married for 40 years.

By contrast, Jimmy had divorced Chris’ mother shortly after Chris was born in 1971, and Jimmy never had a relationship of any kind with Chris, according to the briefs in the case.

Jimmy’s last will was executed in 2002 at a lawyer’s office. Omitting Chris, it left everything to Elizabeth. Kelly would take the entire estate on Elizabeth’s passing.

Jimmy was known to keep all his important estate planning documents in the top drawer of a filing cabinet in his Arlington business office. After Jimmy’s death, neatly bound copies of the couples’ wills and trusts were found in that drawer, but the originals were not there.

“Despite a diligent search, Elizabeth could not find the originals of Jimmy’s or her own 2002 estate planning documents,” read the brief on behalf of Elizabeth and Kelly.

Jimmy had consistently told friends and relatives that he loved his wife and daughter and intended that everything go to them when he died, according to summaries of the evidence.

Evidence also showed Jimmy had no relationship with Chris. In fact, Chris acknowledged he had never met his father, according to the court documents.

Saying the case was a “very close call,” Newman ruled in favor of Elizabeth and Kelly, ordering that the copy of Jimmy’s 2002 will be admitted to probate.

The judge’s ruling “ignored over two centuries of Virginia common law,” Chris’ attorneys argued.

The lawyers said the law required clear and convincing evidence to overcome the presumption that a testator revoked his will when the original of the will cannot be found.

The evidence suggested Jimmy might have decided to change the approach to his estate planning, perhaps out of concern that Kelly was unprepared to take over his businesses, Chris’ lawyers argued.

Jimmy could have destroyed the 2002 documents to ensure they would not take effect if both he and his wife died, the attorneys said.

Jimmy would never have risked dying without a will, lawyers for Elizabeth and Kelly countered. He used an attorney each of the three times he sought to make a will or change his estate planning, they said.

The two sides differed on what the law requires to overcome the presumption of revocation when a will is lost.

The presumption is rebutted “only if the proof of another cause for a will’s disappearance is strong,” said Chris’ lawyers.

But Virginia law “does not impose the virtually impossible burden that Christopher urges this Court to adopt,” wrote the opposing attorneys. Chris’ proposed standard would essentially require that the will be found to prove it had only been lost, they argued.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Chris’ appeal on Dec. 18.

Chris is represented by Bernard J. DiMuro and other lawyers at his Alexandria firm.

Elizabeth is represented by Griffin T. Garnett III of Arlington. Kelly’s lawyers are Michael J. Holleran and other counsel at his Reston firm.

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