FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ARLINGTON COUNTY. William T. Newman, Jr., Judge.
Bernard J. DiMuro (Michael S. Lieberman; Rachael E. Luzietti; DiMuroGinsberg, on briefs), for appellant.
Griffin T. Garnett, III (Michael J. Holleran; Scott D. Helsel; Evan M. Stepanick; Walton & Adams, on brief), for appellees.
PRESENT: All the Justices
DONALD W. LEMONS, CHIEF
In this appeal, we consider whether the trial court erred when it ordered a photocopy of a will to be probated. We must determine whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard in reaching its decision, and whether the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court's determination.
I. Facts and Proceedings
James A. Edmonds, Jr. (" Edmonds" ) died on April 30, 2013. Edmonds was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Cashman Edmonds (" Elizabeth" ), his daughter from that marriage, Kelly Elizabeth Edmonds (" Kelly" ), and a son from a previous marriage, James Christopher Edmonds (" Christopher" ).
It is undisputed that on November 8, 2002, Edmonds executed a will (" 2002 Will" ) which left all of his personal property to his wife, Elizabeth, and the remainder of his property to a revocable living trust (" Trust" ). The 2002 Will stated that in the event Elizabeth pre-deceased Edmonds all of Edmonds' personal property would go to his daughter Kelly. The 2002 Will intentionally omitted Christopher as a beneficiary. The documents creating the Trust were also executed on November 8, 2002. Elizabeth and Kelly are the beneficiaries of the Trust. The Trust documents state that Christopher was intentionally omitted as a beneficiary.
At the same time Edmonds executed his 2002 Will and Trust documents, Elizabeth also executed her will and trust documents. Her estate planning documents were a mirror image of Edmonds' documents, leaving all of her estate to Edmonds, and if Edmonds predeceased her, leaving everything to Kelly.
After Edmonds died, his original 2002 Will could not be located. However, photocopies of the 2002 Will and Trust documents were found in a green binder in Edmonds' filing cabinet in his office. Thereafter, Elizabeth filed a " Complaint to Establish Copies of the Will and Trust Where Originals Cannot Be Located," in the Circuit Court of Arlington County (" trial court" ) and named Kelly and Christopher as defendants. The complaint acknowledged that Kelly and Christopher would both be heirs at law if Edmonds was deemed to have died intestate, but asked the trial court to establish and direct probate of the photocopy of the 2002 Will and the Trust.
Christopher filed an answer, counterclaim, and cross-claim. He sought to establish that Edmonds died intestate, and that Christopher was an heir at law. Christopher asserted that because the 2002 Will was in Edmonds' possession when he died, and Elizabeth had been unable to locate it, the presumption that Edmonds had destroyed it with the intent to revoke it applied.
Kelly filed answers to the complaint and the cross-claim. She admitted that she would be an heir at law if Edmonds died intestate, but she asked the trial court to find that the 2002 Will was valid and to probate the photocopy. She asserted there was no evidence that Edmonds destroyed the 2002 Will with the intent to revoke it.
A two-day trial was held on March 25-26, 2014. Elizabeth presented numerous witnesses who described conversations they had with Edmonds regarding his testamentary intentions. Patrick J. Vaughn, an attorney who prepared wills and trust documents for Edmonds and Elizabeth in 1973, and again in 1989, testified that in the 1973 will, Edmonds left his estate to Elizabeth, and expressly excluded any child of his born from a previous marriage. In the 1989 will, Edmonds again left everything to Elizabeth. In the event Elizabeth predeceased him, he left everything to his daughter, Kelly.
Marc E. Bettius (" Bettius" ) testified that he had been friends with Edmonds and Elizabeth for more than 30 years. Bettius stated that in the fall of 2012, he had gone by Edmonds' auto business to have his car serviced, and he and Edmonds had a conversation. During that conversation, Bettius asked Edmonds what plans he had made for the future of his business, and Edmonds indicated that everything was taken care of in his estate and it would all go to Elizabeth. Edmonds also stated that he made the appropriate decisions to maximize estate tax benefits. Bettius knew Edmonds had a son from a previous marriage and asked Edmonds if he'd ever thought about having a relationship with his son. Edmonds responded in the negative and said that, " the boy had never been a part of his life and never would be a part of his life."
Paul C. Kincheloe (" Kincheloe" ), an attorney who had been friends with Edmonds since the 1970s, testified that he was not professionally engaged to do any estate planning for Edmonds, but they did discuss the subject on several occasions. At one point,
Edmonds asked Kincheloe to serve as substitute trustee, and Kincheloe agreed. Edmonds told Kincheloe he was leaving everything to his wife and daughter, and nothing to his son.
John A. Bell, Jr. (" Bell" ) testified that he had been friends with Edmonds and Elizabeth since the 1980s. The last time he was with Edmonds was during the first week of March 2013, when Edmonds invited him to Florida for a four-day golf tournament. Bell testified that he brought up the subject of estate planning because he was deciding what do with his own estate. During that conversation, Edmonds said, " As soon as I go, everything goes to Liz. And as soon as she goes, everything goes to Kelly." When asked if Edmonds ever said anything negative about Christopher, Bell responded that Edmonds had never mentioned his son. Bell testified that about three or four years before this March 2013 conversation, he and Edmonds had another discussion about their estates. During that discussion, Edmonds said he was trying to set up his estate so that Kelly would receive her inheritance in increments. Bell testified that Edmonds was concerned that Kelly would spend the money all at once. Edmonds was also concerned that he had paid for Kelly to have a great education, and he was not sure she was using it wisely.
Raymond Knight, one of Edmonds' employees in his auto business, testified that approximately six years before Edmonds died, they had a conversation about the future of the business if anything happened to Edmonds. Edmonds told him that " Liz would carry on the business."
Donald Manning (" Manning" ) was the attorney who prepared the 2002 Will. Manning testified that when he met with Edmonds and Elizabeth to prepare their wills in 2002, Edmonds made it clear that he did not want Christopher to be a beneficiary. Manning testified that after Edmonds and Elizabeth executed their wills and trust documents, he made photocopies of the originals. Several weeks later, Edmonds picked up both the originals and the photocopies. Manning testified that the photocopies were placed in a green binder before Edmonds picked them up. Manning also testified that Edmonds never completed several of the items related to the estate plan, such as funding a family trust or retitling stock, but Manning agreed that those items did not affect the 2002 Will.
Meta Jane Mortensen (" Mortensen" ), who prepared Edmonds' taxes each year, testified that she had a discussion with Edmonds wherein she told him she was concerned about the tax implications of his estate plan and wanted to see the documents governing it. Edmonds finally brought her his estate documents in ...