A properly drafted will can be the difference between a smoothly probated estate and over twenty years of litigation.
The Utah Supreme Court recently published its opinion in In re Est. of Womack where it decided on an issue that was raised in an estate that was settled twenty-two years ago. In Womack, Mr. Gordon Womack executed a will leaving his oil, gas, and mineral rights to his three children. His will specified that the children were to hold the rights in a life estate — which means that their rights in the land will terminate upon their death (i.e., at their death they cannot give their right to the land to their heirs) — with the children's children (Mr. Womack's grandchildren) receiving the oil, gas, and mineral rights upon the death of their parents (Mr. Womack's three children).
Mr. Womack died in May of 1989, and his estate was formerly probated the next month. The district court entered an estate-closing order in 1990. However, on June 3, 1991, the district court reopened the estate to determine whether the children (the "life tenants") or the grandchildren (the "remaindermen") had the rights to the interest earned by the oil, gas, and mineral rights. The district court entered its order and closed the estate in July of 1992. Then, over twenty years later in 2014, one of Mr. Womack's children asked the courts to reopen the estate and determine whether he, as one of Mr. Womack's children with a life estate, could receive "all the rents, royalties, bonuses and other income from production of . . . minerals during their lifetime." In re Est. of Womack, 2017 UT 35, ¶ 5. The other two children opposed the reopening of the estate, arguing that the 1992 order was final, and that the courts should not reopen the estate to determine the alleged ambiguity two decades later.
Ultimately the case came down to whether the child seeking to reopen the estate was within the statute of limitations for doing so. Having found that he was most certainly not, the Utah Supreme Court refused to reach the merits of his claim and affirmed the Utah Court of Appeals, which had held that the child's claim was barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
This drawn out, three-year, litigation arising over twenty years after the settlement of the estate is emblematic of the importance of proper will drafting. This controversy took root in a will that was professionally drafted, then interpreted by the court. Even then, as Mr. Womack's child argued, there remained some ambiguity. When individuals attempt to draft their own wills, the problems compound and generations of heirs are left to litigate their differences in opinion. So, when it comes time to draft your will, do it right. Meet with the attorneys at Plant Christensen & Kanell and get the help of expert lawyers. The most important element of any will is demonstrating the intent of the creator. But without the use of specific legal jargon, a will creates confusion in its interpretation, and division in a family left to hash it out over property disputes for decades to come.