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Will Your Family Contest Your Will?

The Howland Estate is a fascinating and now forgotten will contest. The case involved a fortune made in the whaling industry by Edward Robinson. In 1865, he died leaving an estate worth almost $6 million. Almost immediately thereafter, his wife Sylvia Howland died. Her estate was $2 million. The niece, Hetty Robinson was a beneficiary under Edward’s will, from which she received $900,000, plus income from the remaining $5 million. Under Sylvia’s will, half the estate went to other individuals, and half as a life estate to Hetty Robinson.

Hetty Robinson was not satisfied with her aunt’s will. She sued and claimed that a true “second page” of the will left everything to her. While there were numerous legal issues, the case essentially hinged on the second page of the will. Hetty maintained it was authentic. The Howland Estate maintained it was forged.

The authenticity of the signatures was the core issue. Everyone agreed that the signature on the 1862 will was legitimate, having been witnessed by three people. The estate maintained that the copies of the second page, produced by Hetty, were forgeries. The signatures were all virtually identical.

This was the “All-Star” case of its time. Witnesses included John Quincy Adams, a grandson of the former president, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Louis Agassi. They testified that the signatures must be legitimate after examining them under a microscope.

Other famous individuals also testified on behalf of the estate. Benjamin Pierce testified that based on “up-stroke and down-strokes” in the signatures, the chance of an identical signature was greater than 2 trillion to 1.

In the end, after an extensive trial and substantial expenses, the case was decided on a technicality. Hetty Robison left town, and years later, upon her return from London, built an empire. Ultimately, she was referred to as the witch of Wall Street. She died in 1952, with an estate over $200 million. She was the wealthiest woman in the United States.

What does this case teach us? While contested wills are not new, they will be much more common in the future. The main reason is that demographics and economic conditions are at a crossroads. These convergent factors are driving up the number of probate disputes and will contests.

In other words, the “Baby Boomers” are aging, and there will be increasing legal battles to divide their wealth.

By 2030, all members of the Baby Boom generation will have reached 65 years old, and fully 18% of the nation will be at least that age (Pew Research Center). In the next year, 80% of the Baby Boomers will be 65. Roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 today (Pew Research Center).

At the same time, recent economic conditions have created significant economic hardship for the younger generation. As economic difficulties increase, there is incentive for people to attempt to manipulate aging relatives. This often occurs through requested changes in wills, life insurance beneficiary designation forms and the addition of individuals to deeds and bank accounts as joint tenants with full rights of survivorship.

What this means is that many parents in their 50’s and 60’s today will ultimately be remembered in the family by the terrible legal battle their final will and testament created.