Two Louisiana Supreme Court Cases Examine When Attestation Clauses In A Notarial Will Substantially Comply With The Law, and When They Don’t

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In the January 2021 cases of Succession of James Conway Liner III and Succession of Peggy Blackwell Bruce, the Louisiana Supreme Court examined the attestation clauses in two notarial testaments (wills) and determined that one substantially complied with the requirements for executing a valid will, and one did not.

Notarial Wills and Testaments In Louisiana

A notarial testament in Louisiana must be in writing, dated, and executed by the testator in the presence of a notary and two competent witnesses.  There are different requirements for the attestation clause if the testate can read and is physically able to sign his name, and when the testator is unable to read.

In Liner and Bruce, the Louisiana Supreme Court analyzed attestation clauses under La. C.C. art 1577(2) and La. C.C. art. 1579(2).

The Facts of Succession of James Conway Liner – Article 1579

The testator herein executed two notarial testaments: one in 2013 and another in 2015 (which purported to revoke all prior testaments). The 2013 testament divided the testator’s property equally among his three adult children (Conway, Jeffrey, and Laura). The 2015 testament, executed under La. C.C. art. 1579 (for a testator who is unable to read regardless of whether he is able to sign his name), divided the testator’s property between only two of his children (Jeffrey and Laura), excluding the third child (Conway).

The testator’s 2015 notarial testament read, in pertinent part:

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have signed this, my Last Will and Testament,  in  the  presence  of  the  witnesses  hereinafter  named  and  undersigned. [signature of testator]

*  *  *

The foregoing instrument, consisting of eight (8) pages, and read aloud  in  the  presence  of  the  Testator  and  of  each  other,  such reading having been followed on copies of the Will by Notary and witnesses, and the Testator declared that he had heard the reading of the Will by the   Notary,   and   the   Will   was   signed   and  declared   by   JAMES CONWAY LINER, III, Testator and above named, in our presence to be his Last Will and Testament, and in the presence of the Testator and each other we have hereunto subscribed our names on this 3rd day of June, 2015.[signature of witnesses, notary, and testator]  (Emphasis added.)

 

Despite the fact that the testator actually signed on each separate page and at the  end  of  the  testament,  Liner’s  testament  stated only that it  was “signed.”

The  district  court  invalidated  the  2015  Liner testament,  ruling  that  the  provisions of the attestation clause were not substantially similar to those set forth in La. C.C. art. 1579.   Jeffrey and Laura appealed, and the appellate court reversed.

Louisiana Civil Code Article 1579 – Attestation Clauses When Testator Is Unable To Read

If a testator in Louisiana is unable to read, regardless of whether he is able to sign his name, La. C.C. art. 1579(2) governs the requirements of the attestation clause for a notarial will and testament, and states:

In the presence of the testator and each other, the notary and witnesses must sign the following declaration, or one substantially similar: “This testament  has  been  read  aloud  in  our  presence  and  in  the  presence  of  the  testator,  such  reading  having  been  followed  on  copies  of  the  testament by the witnesses [, and the notary if he is not the person who reads  it  aloud,]  and  in  our  presence  the  testator  declared  or  signified  that he heard the reading, and that the instrument is his testament, and that he signed his name at the end of the testament and on each other separate page;  and  in  the  presence  of  the  testator  and  each  other,  we  have subscribed our names this ____day of ____, ______.”

La. C.C. art. 1579(2) requires that the notary and witnesses  sign  a  declaration,  “or  one  substantially  similar,”  stating  the  testator  declared or signified in their presence that, inter alia, “he signed his name at the end of the testament and on each other separate page.”

Here,  the attestation clause of Mr. Liner’s 2015 testament stated only that “the Testator declared that . . . the Will was signed . . . .”  The statement in the instant 2015 testament  that  the  testament  “was  signed”  is  not  substantially similar to the model phrase set forth in Article 1579(2) because it does not establish that  the  testament  was  signed  at  the  end  and  on  every  page  of  the  multiple-page testament.

The Louisiana Supreme Court stated:

A statement verifying only that the “[w]ill was signed” establishes only that the will was signed once and does not establish that the testament was signed at the end and on each other separate page, as required by La. C.C. art. 1579(2).  An attestation clause that fails to state that the testament was signed at the end and  on  each  other  separate  page  fails  to  inform  the  testator  and  witnesses  that the testator has  a  responsibility  to  sign  every  page  of  a  multiple-page  testament,  and  “signing one’s name on each page of the will undoubtedly offers more heightened protection from surreptitious replacement of pages.”

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and reinstated the trial court’s judgment, which invalidated the 2015 testament.

The Facts of Succession of Peggy Blackwell Bruce

The testator herein executed a notarial testament in 2016, naming her niece as her  sole  legatee.    After  the testator’s death  in  2018,  her  widower  challenged  the  testament, contending inter alia that it was rendered invalid by the failure to state in the  attestation  clause  that  the  testator  declared  she  had  signed  “at  the  end”  of  the  testament.  Instead of stating that the testator signed at the end, the attestation clause stated:

IN  WITNESS  WHEREOF,  in  the  presence  of  the  undersigned  Notary Public and competent witnesses, I have declared this to be my Last Will and Testament and have signed each page hereof on this 21st .  .  .  day  of  November,  2016,  in  Lake  Charles,  Calcasieu  Parish, Louisiana.[signature of testator]

*  *  *

Signed  on  each  page  and  declared  by  Testator,  PEGGY  B.  BRUCE,  above  named,  in  our  presence,  to  be  her  Last  Will  and  Testament,  and  in  the  presence  of  the  Testatrix  and  each  other,  we  hereunto subscribed our names on this the 21st day of November 2016.[signature of witnesses, notary,  and testator]

The testator actually signed the will on each separate page and at the end of the testament.

The district court invalidated the testament and, as described by the appellate court, the district court “found the only deviation from La. Civ. Code art. 1577(2) was the absence of the words ‘at the end’  in the attestation clause.”  The appellate court affirmed.

Louisiana Civil Code Article 1577 – Attestation Clauses When Testator Can Sign His Name and Read

If a testator in Louisiana is physically able to read and sign his name, the attestation clause in the notarial will and testament is governed by La. C.C. art 1577(2), which states:

In  the  presence  of  the  testator  and  each  other,  the  notary  and  the  witnesses  shall  sign  the  following  declaration,  or  one  substantially  similar: “In our presence the testator has declared or signified that this instrument is his testament and has signed  it at  the  end  and  on  each  other separate page, and in the presence of the testator and each other we have hereunto subscribed our names this ____ day of _____, __.”

Thus, the issue presented in Bruce was whether an attestation clause verifying that the testator declared he “signed” the testament is substantially similar to the Article 1579 requirement that the attestation clause verify that the testator declared he signed his name “at the end” and “on each other separate page” of the testament.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the history Louisiana law governing attestation clauses, stating:

From  this  history,  we  can  see  that,  prior  to  the  1980  amendment,  former  Section  2442  required  the  testator  to  “sign his name at  the  end  of  the  will  and on each separate sheet of the instrument,” but the witnesses and notary were required to  attest  only that  the  testator  had  “[s]igned  on  each  page”;  however,  the  1980  amendment changed both of these phrases to state that the testator had signed “at the end”  and  “on  each  other  separate  page.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court determined that since a statement that the testator signed “on each page” is a more extensive statement (inevitably including the page on which the “end” of the testament  appears  and  encompassing  even  those  pages  beyond  the  testamentary  recitations)   than that currently required by La. C.C. art. 1577(2) ‒ that the testator signed “at the end and on each other separate page” ‒ “we cannot say that stating that the testator has “signed on each page” impermissibly deviates from Article 1577’s model language.”

The Court concluded that the attestation in the notarial will substantially complied with the signature requirements and was substantially similar to the language of La.  C.C.  art.  1577,  requiring  an  attestation  that  the  testator  signed  “at  the  end  and  on  each other separate page.”

Louisiana Attestation Clauses Are Liberally Construed As Long As Substantial Compliance With the Law

The Louisiana Supreme Court noted in both cases that that  the  validity  of  a  testament  should  be  maintained  through  the  liberal  construction  and  application  of  the  codal  articles,  rather than a strict interpretation, as long as there is substantial compliance with the codal provisions.

In each case, the Court distinguished the other opinion discussed herein.

In Bruce, the Louisiana Supreme Court distinguished Liner, stating:

As we held in Liner, the statement that the testator had “signed” the testament establishes only that the will was signed once  and  does  not  establish  that  the  testament  was  signed  at  the  end  and  on  each  other separate page, particularly for multiple-page testaments   such as those at issue in both Hanna and Liner.  See Succession of Liner, 19-02011 at pp. 5-8, ___ So.3d at ___.  In contrast, we conclude herein that a declaration that a testator has signed “on  each  page”  of  a  testament  necessarily  establishes  that  the  testament  has  been  signed on every page, including the page containing the end of the testament.

In Liner, the Louisiana Supreme Court distinguished Bruce, stating:

We distinguish the case of Succession of Bruce, 20-00239 (La. 1/27/21), ___ So.3d ___, in which the notarial  testament  at  issue  stated  in  the  attestation  clause  that the testator had “[s]igned on each page.”  In Bruce, since the phrase “signed on each page” necessarily encompasses the fact that the testator has signed on the page containing  the  end  of  the  testament,  as  well  as  every  other  separate  page,  we  held  that the  attestation  language  was  substantially  similar  to  the  La.  C.C.  art.  1577(2)model language, requiring that the witnesses and notary attest that the testator had signed “at the end and on each other separate page.”  Whereas in the instant case the attestation clause states simply that the testator “signed” the testament, which could only establish that the testator signed the eight-page testament once, rather than “at the end” and “on each other separate page,” as required by La. C.C. art. 1579(2).

The takeaway: the best way to avoid litigation and make sure that your notarial will and testament is upheld is to substantially comply with the Louisiana code requirements for attestation clauses, and to work with a Louisiana probate lawyer.