In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we report on a decision from the Alabama Supreme Court addressing the revocation of an individual's will under Alabama law.
Larry Franklin Butler, individually and as executor of the Estate of Elizabeth S. Butler v. Hayden Reid Butler et al., No. 1140683, CV-14-900088 (Ala. 2015) (Decedent's will was not void because there was no evidence of any separate contract or provisions in the will satisfying the Alabama statute governing the circumstances in which an individual can be prevented from revoking his/her will by contract)
In July 2008, Ned N. Butler, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth S. Butler executed a joint revocable trust (the “Trust”) for the benefit of themselves, their children and grandchildren. The Trust outlined the distribution of the Butlers' assets while both spouses were alive, in the event that one spouse passed away, and in the event that both spouses were deceased. Article 4, § 1(d) of the Trust specifically stated “We [Ned and Betty] shall have the absolute right to amend or revoke our trust, in whole or in part, at any time . . . After the death of one of us, this agreement shall not be subject to amendment or revocation.” On the same day that the Trust was executed, Mr. and Mrs. Butler executed wills, which provided that their assets transfer into the Trust at their respective deaths. The Butlers executed new wills in September 2011, which were identical to the July 2008 wills, aside from naming different alternate executors.
Mr. Butler died in December 2011. In October 2012, Mrs. Butler executed a new will, containing language revoking “all other wills, codicils or other instruments of testamentary character” previously executed by Mrs. Butler and devising certain assets to family members and friends. The distribution of Mrs. Butler's assets arising from the October 2012 will differed from the distribution of Mrs. Butler's assets as provided in the Trust.
Ms. Butler died on December 23, 2013. Upon the admission of the October 2012 will to probate on March 10, 2014, a group of Ms. Butler's grandchildren contested the October 2012 will, arguing that the will was void because it contradicted the terms of the estate plan established by the Trust. The grandchildren petitioned the Elmore County Circuit Court to request a declaration that the October 2012 will was invalid and to set aside the probate court's order admitting the October 2012 will to probate. On December 30, 2014, the Circuit Court entered an order voiding the October 2012 will, holding that the language of Article 4, § 1(d) of the Trust prevented Mrs. Butler from executing the October 2012 will.
On appeal, the executor of Mrs. Butler's estate argued that the Elmore County Circuit Court misinterpreted the Alabama statute outlining the circumstances by which an individual can be prevented from revoking his or her will by contract. Alabama Code § 43-8-250 establishes that a contract to not revoke a will or devise can be established only by 1) provisions of a will stating material provisions of the contract; 2) an express reference in a will to a contract and extrinsic evidence proving the terms of the contract; or 3) a writing signed by the decedent evidencing the contract.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the Elmore County Circuit Court's order voiding the October 2012 will was erroneous, holding that Mrs. Butler had not entered into a contract satisfying § 43-8-250. The Alabama Supreme Court held that Mrs. Butler had not entered into a contract satisfying § 43-8-250 because 1) the September 2011 will does not identify provisions of a contract in which Mrs. Butler agreed to not revoke her will; 2) the September 2011 will does not reference a contract not to revoke a will and there was no extrinsic evidence of such a contract; and 3) while the Trust contained language stating that the Trust shall not be amended or revoked, the Trust contains no language preventing Mrs. Butler from revoking her will or changing the distribution of her estate.