In re Will of Ranney
124 N.J. 1, 589 A.2d 1339 (1991)

  • Ranney and his wife Betty went to a lawyer to get wills drawn up.
    • The lawyer made some technical errors, the biggest of which was to have the witnesses sign not on the will itself (in the attestation clause), but on a separate sheet of paper.
      • The separate sheet of paper is called a self-proving affidavit.
      • Formalities listed on a self-proving affidavit are irrebuttable, which is what makes them valuable. However, under New Jersey State law, you have to have the witnesses sign the attestation clause as well as the self-proving affidavit!
    • The lawyer was later disbarred for issues not related to this case.
  • Ranney died and Betty contested the will.
    • There was no allegation of fraud or undue influence. The sole issue was whether the will met the letter of the law.
    • Technically, since the witnesses never signed an attestation clause in the will itself, there weree no official witness signatures.
  • The Probate Court found the will to be invalid.
    • The Probate Court was satisfied that the will was genuine, but that the witnesses did not strictly comply with New Jersey State law.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the self-proving affidavit with the witnesses’ signatures was part of the will and therefore it literally complied with State law.
  • The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, but for different reasons.
    • The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the self-proving affidavit was not part of the will and therefore it did not strictly comply with New Jersey State law.
    • However, the Court found that the will substantially complied with New Jersey State law and should therefore be considered valid.
      • “Rigid insistence on literal compliance often frustrates the purpose of a will and defeats the intent of the testator.”
      • However, the Court warned that, “our adoption of substantial compliance should not be construed as an invitation to either carelessness or chicanery.”
  • The Uniform Probate Code § 2-503 (and the Restatement of Wills § 3.3) now says that a document that has not been executed in compliance with the code can be treated as if is had been in compliance if there is clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document to constitute a will.
    • In this case, the self-proving affidavit was pretty clear and convincing evidence that Ranney meant to create a valid will.
    • The doctrine of substantial compliance (aka harmless error)