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Famous celebrities Robin Williams photo by Eva Rinaldi; Aretha Franklin photo by Atlantic Records; Philip S. Hoffman photo by Georges Biard; Howard Hughes photo by anonymous

There are plenty of reasons why wills fail, and celebrities show us why

by Legacy Plan
April 13, 2023

When a last will and testament is revoked, it means the will is no longer valid, and there are several ways in which this can happen.

The primary reason that a last will and testament is rendered invalid is that it does not comply with the legal requirements for a valid will. Each jurisdiction has specific laws regarding the creation, execution and revocation of wills, and failure to comply with these laws can result in a will being deemed invalid.

Let’s consider some common reasons that a will may be invalidated at look at some high-profile cases that provide good examples.

Lack of testamentary capacity

In order for a will to be valid, the testator must be of sound mind and understand the nature and consequences of creating a will at the time of its execution. One famous example of a last will and testament being invalidated due to lack of testamentary capacity involves the estate of American businessman Howard Hughes. Hughes was a billionaire who passed away in 1976, leaving behind a contested estate and multiple wills.

One of the wills in question, dated 1968, left Hughes' entire estate to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit research organization. However, the validity of this will was challenged by multiple parties, including Hughes' cousins and former business associates, who claimed that Hughes was not of sound mind and lacked testamentary capacity when he executed the will.

The dispute over the will lasted for years, with multiple trials and appeals, before a settlement was eventually reached in 1984. In the settlement, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute received approximately $1.56 billion from the estate, but other parties also received significant portions of the estate.

The case of Howard Hughes highlights the importance of testamentary capacity in creating a valid will. If a testator does not have the mental capacity to understand the nature and consequences of creating a will, the will may be deemed invalid. This can lead to lengthy legal disputes and may result in unintended beneficiaries receiving a portion of the estate.

Undue influence

If someone exerts undue influence over the testator, such as through coercion or manipulation, the will may be invalid.

A prominent example of someone exerting undue influence over a testator and the resulting invalidation of a last will and testament involves the estate of American socialite Brooke Astor.

Astor was a wealthy philanthropist who passed away in 2007 at the age of 105. Prior to her death, Astor had executed multiple wills, but the validity of her final will, executed in 2002, was called into question. The 2002 will left the majority of her estate to her son, Anthony Marshall, and disinherited her other son, Philip Marshall.

After Astor's death, it was alleged that Anthony Marshall had exerted undue influence over his mother and manipulated her into changing her will in his favor. Witnesses testified that Astor was in poor health and suffering from dementia at the time of the will's execution and that Anthony had isolated her from her friends and family.

The case went to trial in 2009, and Anthony Marshall was ultimately found guilty of multiple charges, including fraud and larceny, for his actions regarding his mother's estate. The 2002 will was deemed invalid due to the undue influence exerted by Anthony Marshall, and a previous will from 1997, which left a significant portion of Astor's estate to charity, was reinstated.

The case of Brooke Astor illustrates the dangers of undue influence in the creation of a last will and testament. If someone exerts undue influence over a testator, such as through coercion or manipulation, the resulting will may be deemed invalid. It is important to ensure that a testator has the mental capacity to make their own decisions and that there is no outside influence on their decisions when creating a will.

Fraud or duress

A sealed document

If the testator was deceived or forced into creating or signing the will, it may be considered invalid. A classic example of fraud and duress leading to the invalidation of a last will and testament involves the estate of American millionaire Huguette Clark.

Clark was a reclusive heiress who passed away in 2011 at the age of 104. Prior to her death, she had executed multiple wills, with the final one signed in 2005. The 2005 will left the majority of her $300 million estate to her nurse, her attorney and various charities, while disinheriting her distant relatives.

After Clark's death, her relatives challenged the validity of the 2005 will, alleging that Clark had been unduly influenced and deceived by her nurse and attorney. The relatives claimed that the nurse and attorney had isolated Clark from her family and friends, controlled her access to information and communication, and manipulated her into signing the will in their favor.

During the trial, it was revealed that the nurse and attorney had received millions of dollars in gifts from Clark, and that the attorney had been named executor of Clark's estate. The trial also uncovered evidence of fraud and duress, with the nurse and attorney coercing Clark into signing the will by telling her false information about her relatives and threatening to take away her beloved doll collection if she did not comply.

In the end, the court invalidated the 2005 will, finding that Clark had been deceived and forced into signing it under duress. A previous will from 2003, which left the majority of Clark's estate to her distant relatives, was reinstated.

The case of Huguette Clark highlights the dangers of fraud and duress in the creation of a last will and testament. If someone deceives or forces a testator into creating or signing a will, the resulting will may be deemed invalid.

Improper execution

The will must be executed in accordance with the legal requirements of the jurisdiction, such as the presence of witnesses and a notary public.

The improper execution can lead to costly and devastating results to intended beneficiaries. One example is the case of Nina Wang, a Hong Kong businesswoman.

Wang was one of Asia's richest women, with a fortune estimated at over $4 billion. After her death in 2007, two wills were presented for probate. The first will, dated 2002, named Wang's feng shui master, Tony Chan, as her sole beneficiary. The second will, dated 2006, named Wang's charitable foundation as her beneficiary.

During the legal battle over the validity of the wills, it was revealed that the 2006 will had been improperly executed. According to Hong Kong law, a will must be signed by the testator and two witnesses in the presence of each other. However, in the case of the 2006 will, one of the witnesses had not signed the will in the presence of the other witness, and the signature dates on the will were also questioned.

After a lengthy legal battle, the court found that the 2006 will was invalid due to improper execution. As a result, Wang's earlier 2002 will was deemed valid, and Tony Chan was removed as the executor of Wang's estate. The court also found that Chan had exerted undue influence on Wang in the creation of the 2006 will, and he was charged with forgery and fraud.

The case of Nina Wang highlights the importance of proper execution of a last will and testament. If a will is not executed in accordance with the requirements of the law, it may be deemed invalid.

Inheritance law conflicts

In some cases, the provisions of a will may conflict with the inheritance laws of the jurisdiction, leading to the will being deemed invalid.

It's important to note that the exact reasons that a will may be considered invalid can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. Therefore, it's important to consult with an attorney to ensure that your will complies with all applicable legal requirements.

The case of wealthy businessman Nathan Blum provides a real-life example of when a provision of a will conflicted with inheritance laws and led to the will being deemed invalid.

Blum died in 2015 at the age of 97. His will included a provision that left his entire estate, worth an estimated $40 million, to his longtime companion and caretaker, a woman named Linda Doyle. However, Blum's only living heirs were his nieces and nephews, who contested the will, arguing that Blum lacked the mental capacity to make the bequest to Doyle and that she had exerted undue influence over him.

The case went to trial, and a New York judge ultimately ruled that the bequest to Doyle was invalid under New York's inheritance laws, which provide that a person cannot be disinherited unless there is clear and convincing evidence of misconduct or bad behavior.

In this case, Blum's nieces and nephews argued that Doyle had coerced Blum into leaving her his entire estate, and that he lacked the mental capacity to understand the implications of his decision. The judge agreed, finding that the bequest was the product of undue influence and that Blum had not understood the full consequences of his decision.

This case illustrates how a provision of a will may conflict with the inheritance laws of a jurisdiction, leading to the will being deemed invalid. In this case, New York's inheritance laws provide strong protections for heirs, making it difficult to disinherit them without clear and convincing evidence of wrongdoing. As a result, Blum's attempt to leave his entire estate to his caretaker was ultimately unsuccessful.

Marital status, a new will, ‘slayers’ and more reasons wills fail

There are several life events to consider that can lead to a will becoming invalid.

One key life event involves a marriage, divorce or annulment. When a person gets married, their existing will may become invalid or partially invalid, depending on the jurisdiction's laws. If a person mentions their spouse in their will and later divorces or annuls the marriage, the provisions relating to the former spouse are revoked automatically. The same applies to annulled marriages.

Another reason a will could become invalid is the creation of a new will. If a person creates a new will or codicil, the provisions of the old will may be revoked if the new document contradicts the previous one. For example, if a person leaves their estate to their spouse in a previous will but then creates a new will that leaves everything to their children, the previous will is automatically revoked.

The physical destruction of the will is another way. A will can be revoked by destroying it with the intention of revoking it. For example, if a person burns or tears up their will, it is considered revoked. However, this must be done with the intention of revoking the will.

Another rather unsavory way that a will is invalidated is because of what is known as the “slayer rule.” This rule applies when a beneficiary of the will has unlawfully killed the testator. In such cases, the beneficiary is not entitled to receive any part of the estate, and the will is considered revoked with regard to the beneficiary.


A notable example of a will being revoked due to a divorce is the case of comedian and actor Robin Williams. In 2011, Williams updated his estate plan, which included his last will and testament, to provide for his third wife, Susan Schneider. The will stated that Schneider would receive most of his estate, including his home in California and all personal items, while his children from previous marriages, Zachary, Zelda and Cody, would receive his remaining assets.

However, Williams and Schneider later divorced in 2014, after which Williams made significant changes to his estate plan. He created a new trust, which divided his assets between his three children and left them his home and other personal items. Williams' trust explicitly stated that it revoked any previous wills or trusts he had created. The provisions relating to Schneider in his previous will were therefore revoked automatically.

After Williams' death in 2014, his children filed a petition in court seeking the interpretation of the trust and the distribution of his assets. Schneider challenged the trust in court, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of Williams' children. The court held that Williams had the legal capacity to make changes to his estate plan after his divorce, and that his intentions were clear in the new trust document. The case illustrates how a divorce can lead to the revocation of a will, and how important it is to update estate plans after significant life events such as marriage, divorce, or annulment.

A new contradictory will revokes the previous one

One well-publicized example of a will being revoked due to a new will contradicting the previous one is the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman, an acclaimed actor, created a will in 2004 that left his entire estate to his long-term partner, Mimi O'Donnell, whom he had three children with.

However, in 2013, Hoffman created a new will and trust that significantly changed the distribution of his estate. The new estate plan created a trust for his eldest child and left the rest of his estate to his other two children in trust until they turned 30. The will and trust also explicitly stated that they revoked any previous wills or trusts that Hoffman had created.

After Hoffman's sudden death from a drug overdose in 2014, his estate plan was subject to legal challenges from O'Donnell, who argued that Hoffman had intended to provide for her and their children. However, the court ultimately upheld the validity of Hoffman's new will and trust, which superseded the previous will and revoked its provisions. The court noted that the language in the new documents was clear and unambiguous, and that Hoffman had taken the necessary steps to ensure that his intentions were carried out.

The case highlights the importance of regularly updating estate plans to reflect changes in one's life and relationships, and the need to use clear and unambiguous language in legal documents to avoid confusion and disputes.

Intend to revoke your will? Tearing it up is one way

A last will and testament

A notable example of a will being revoked by physical destruction with the intention of revoking it is the case of Aretha Franklin. In 2018, the Queen of Soul passed away without a valid will, leading to legal battles over the distribution of her assets among her four sons.

However, in 2019, three handwritten wills were discovered in Franklin's home, including one that was reportedly found under a couch cushion. One of the wills, dated 2014, was partially destroyed with a clear intention to revoke it. The document was torn along the horizontal center and contained handwritten notes that indicated Franklin's desire to revoke the will.

In court, handwriting experts confirmed that the handwriting on the document matched Franklin's, and the court ruled that the 2014 will was indeed revoked due to its physical destruction with the intention of revoking it. The court ultimately recognized a different handwritten will from 2010, which divided Franklin's assets among her sons and was not destroyed with the intention of revoking it.

The case illustrates the importance of carefully handling and storing legal documents, including wills, and the need to use clear language and proper legal formalities to avoid confusion and disputes. It also shows that physical destruction of a will with the intention of revoking it can effectively revoke the will, but only if the intention to revoke is clear and unambiguous.

Slayer rule prevents reward for a wrongful death

The slayer rule is a legal principle that applies in situations where a beneficiary of a will is responsible for the death of the testator. Under this rule, the beneficiary is barred from receiving any part of the estate, and the will is considered revoked as to that beneficiary.

One well-known application of the slayer rule was in the case of Nancy Seaman, a Michigan woman who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2005 for the death of her husband, Robert, a successful businessman. Robert Seaman had a net worth of approximately $5 million at the time of his death and had named Nancy as the primary beneficiary of his estate in his will.

However, following Robert's death, evidence emerged that Nancy had poisoned him with antifreeze in order to collect on his life insurance policies and inherit his estate. At her trial, Nancy was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Under Michigan law, the slayer rule applies in cases where a beneficiary is convicted of the murder of the testator. As a result, Nancy was disqualified from receiving any part of Robert's estate, including the proceeds of his life insurance policies. The will was considered revoked as to Nancy, and Robert's estate was distributed to his heirs under Michigan's intestacy laws.

The case of Nancy Seaman illustrates the importance of the slayer rule in preventing individuals who commit crimes from benefiting from their actions. It also highlights the need for careful estate planning, including consideration of potential conflicts and the potential for beneficiaries to engage in unlawful conduct.

If you need to make changes to your will, you can create a new will or codicil that revokes the old one. A codicil is a legal document that amends, rather than replaces, a previously executed will. It is usually used when a testator wants to make minor changes to their will, such as adding or removing a beneficiary.

Remember that when making changes to your will, it is important to follow the legal requirements of your jurisdiction. These requirements may include the need for witnesses, the proper execution of the document, and the use of specific language. Therefore, it is advisable to consult with an attorney to ensure that your changes are legally valid and enforceable.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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