In re Estate of Wait
43 Tenn. App. 217, 306 S.W.2d 345 (1957)

  • Wait invited some friends over to sign her will as attesters (aka witnesses). Wait tried to sign the will, but barely made a mark before she declared that her hand was shaking because she was ill. She directed her friends to sign and claimed that she would sign later, when she felt better.
    • A few days later, Wait showed her friend the signed will and declared that she had signed it.
  • Wait died. Wait’s relatives contested the validity of the will.
    • Wait’s greedy relatives had been completely cut out of the will and wanted the money.
  • The Probate Court found that the will was invalid. The Estate appealed.
    • The Probate Court found that, according to Tennessee State law, the testator has to sign the will before the attesters do.
    • Wait’s Estate unsuccessfully argued that the mark she made on the paper before she gave up was close enough to a signature to count.
      • Illiterate people have historically gotten away with just making an ‘X’, so this was kinda the same thing.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed and found that the will was invalid.
    • The Appellate Court found that under Tennessee State law, there are three ways to sign a will properly:
      • Sign in the presence of witnesses
      • Sign before the witnesses get there and then tell them it is your signature
      • Direct someone else to sign the will for you in the presence of the witnesses.
    • The Appellate Court found than an ‘X’ or other mark would have been ok, if the testator intended that to be their complete signature. That wasn’t the case here.
  • No one claimed that there was any fraud involved, or that the will did not accurately represent Wait’s desires. This was solely a case of whether the will met the letter of the law.
    • Is it right to invalidate a will for nitpicky reasons like this? Once invalidated, Wait’s estate would transfer according to intestate transfer laws, which may be significantly different than what she wanted. How is that just?