How To Prepare For a 1404- Subscribing Witnesses

The order of the witnesses’ testimony is ordinarily not known prior to the hearing. Thus, the subscribing witness is well advised to prepare for his testimony in advance of the hearing. When the hearing is scheduled, the witness should be provided with a copy of the self-proving affidavit and a copy of the will. The witness should review them in advance. In many cases subscribing witnesses are called upon to testify first. Often this is based upon the expectation that the testimony will be brief in contrast with that of the supervising attorney. In any event, the witness should be told that he will not be permitted to remain in the courtroom and listen to other witnesses testify, as the court will likely exclude the subsequent witnesses from the courtroom.
Most witnesses participate willingly as volunteers, knowing it is part of the lawyer’s duty to the decedent. Most do not retain counsel, nor do they require counsel in the ordinary case. A noncooperative witness is subject to subpoena.
A meeting should be scheduled for the witness with counsel for the proponent who will conduct the examination in court. The witness should be told of the significance of the examination and the formality of the matter before the court. The witness should be prepared to review any interactions with the decedent prior to the will execution. Attention should be directed to whether the decedent’s condition changed over time. All interactions with the decedent leading up to the will signing should be reviewed. Equally, if the witness continued to have contact with the decedent after the signing that should be explored as well. The witness should be asked if he maintained any notes independent of the law firm files. Further, the witness should be asked at the outset if there are documents that would refresh his recollection. In most cases it makes sense to provide them to the witness as they are ordinarily in the law firm’s file, possession or control.
It is not uncommon for the meeting with the witness to start with the witness professing to have no recollection of the signing. While that can be problematic in some cases, often use of the law firm diary or calendar together with time and billing entries can successfully rehabilitate a lagging memory. The file can be reviewed to refresh a recollection.
The statutory elements of due execution of the will should be considered and reviewed in detail with the witness. Special attention should be afforded to what the witness may have observed relative to the supervising attorney’s custom and practice in will executions. Many lawyers utilize a checklist and often state the identical words at every will signing that they supervise. The witness’ recollection of this can be powerful in defeating a potential objection alleging lack of due execution. It is critical that the witness be prepared to cover the exact elements required by the statute in order to prove due execution.
After covering due execution of the will, the witness’ attention should be directed to the subject matter of other potential objections in the case. Capacity of the decedent must be covered in all cases, even if in a cursory manner. The witness should be asked to describe the decedent’s condition at the time of the signing. The witness should become prepared to answer in his own words why the decedent was of sound mind and memory at the time that the will was signed. That testimony can often be the crux of defeating an objection alleging lack of capacity.
Rather than allowing the witness to opt out with a series of answers professing not to know or remember, the witness should be directed to state what he observed – both with his eyes and his ears. Often the most probative facts establishing capacity seemingly are the most innocuous and inconsequential at the time (e.g. where the decedent planned to go next after the signing or where she had been, who accompanied her to the meeting, sports, politics, heath, or the weather to name a few). It can be very helpful to have the witness relate a conversation that he had with the witness at the time of the signing.
The most important aspect of the examination is that part pertaining to what happened and what was said at the time that the will was signed. In order to ward off potential objections that testimony ideally should be strong and fact specific. The witness must be asked questions to eliminate all doubts. The witness should be asked to describe why (the reasons) he concluded that the decedent was free from undue influence at the time of the signing. This can be done by addressing who was present and what was said. Where a relative, friend or other person not associated with the law firm is present, the witness must take care to state the facts on which he relied in concluding that the decedent was free of undue influence.
The potential objection based upon fraud is difficult to prove. In any event the witness should be prepared to testify that no person made any false statements on which it appeared the decedent relied causing him to sign the will.
It is advisable to prepare the witness for the cross examination by allaying concerns. For example, the witness should be told that many cross examiners inquire about the decedent’s clothing, attire, personal appearance, hygiene and similar subjects. The witness should be directed to do his best to patiently and truthfully answer all the questions. The witness should be directed to be polite and professional with the cross-examining attorney no matter how disrespectful or silly the questions may seem.
The witness should also be reminded that the cross examiner may seek to exploit divergence in recollections and testimony. Thus, while that effort may be unnerving for the witness, he should do his best based upon his recollection and the documents.
It is not uncommon for the cross examiner to try to cast doubt. The witness should be prepared for this approach and in the appropriate instance rebut the effort with facts.

How To Prepare For Your 1404 Exam- Drafting Attorneys

LOCATE THE ESTATE PLANNING FILE

Many experienced estate planning attorneys assert that estate planning files of law firms should not be purged or destroyed. They often agree that destruction or purging of planning files is only allowable after the estate is closed. Additional factors to consider are expiration of the applicable statute of limitations for potential legal malpractice claims and the law firm’s policy on document and client file retention.
Minimally, the request for a 1404 examination requires that the attorney draftsperson should have a litigation hold immediately in place. A prudent practice is that on learning of the decedent’s death the hold should be put in place. The hold must include all electronically stored information. This will protect the attorney draftsperson and the firm from an embarrassing or harmful circumstance where the file becomes lost or destroyed. It is also an easy way to bolster credibility.

Notes which pertain to the client’s instructions given to the attorney draftsperson are critical. All prior drafts of the instruments prior to execution should be located. The correspondence section of the file and the billing records should be located as well.

ASCERTAIN THE WHEREABOUTS AND STATUS OF SUBSCRIBING WITNESSES

The court will rely on the proponent and counsel to produce the witnesses. Cooperation is key. Most non-attorney witnesses naturally will look to avoid coming to court. Even more so, they seek to do little to nothing in preparation for their testimony. It is unwise to leave the arrangements to the last minute. In some instances, a witness cannot be found. We have had experience with cases involving deceased supervising and drafting attorneys. The details must be considered before coming to court. No judge likes to be surprised or confronted with a circumstance that causes delay.
Minimally, the witnesses should be provided with a copy of the will, together with any affidavit that the witnesses signed as subscribing witnesses.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK PRIOR TO TESTIFYING

In order to fulfill the obligation to the testator, the supervising attorney has a duty to prepare for the examination. The obligation of the attorney that drew the will continues through the examination. The examination, particularly the attorney’s testimony is an opportunity to prove the client’s will by showcasing the great care and attention that was provided to the decedent’s legal work.

The supervising attorney and the subscribing witnesses must read the will and any self-proving affidavit in advance. The contents should be well known and understood by the attorney and ideally the witnesses before taking the stand. Incredibly, attorneys continue to testify that they are unfamiliar with the contents of the will, cannot recollect the plan or worse, have been too busy to re-read the will and the affidavit.

Many highly skilled estate planning attorneys find their work reduced to confusing and broken-down ruble where they have not prepared. Many attorneys fail to read their own file before taking the stand. They are unprepared to address or explain contradictory notes or case sensitive issues. Some fail to produce the entire file when required to do so. A rambling effort to explain away non-compliance does not bolster confidence in the will execution. These circumstances of muddled testimony do not escape the court’s attention.

False confidence causing a lack of preparation often leads to a highly adversarial examination with the drafting attorney coming across to the court as highly defensive, perhaps arrogant and in some instances lacking credibility. Adept counsel for objectants will immediately sense the defensiveness and exploit it heavily in both the exam and in further proceedings with the court and perhaps a jury.

Amazingly, attorneys continue to testify concerning the subject of due execution without regard for what the statute actually says. While the statute itself is somewhat forgiving in terms of the sequence of events in the signing, it does prescribe the elements which are required to make a valid will.

An effort should be made to refresh recollections. This can be accomplished in several manners. If the preparation is undertaken with a degree of seriousness and professionalism, the entire file and the notes should help greatly. There may be other law firm records, including time and billing entries that can greatly aid recollections. Colleagues are often able to recall some helpful details about particular clients as it is often the case that clients have contact with more than one person in a firm.

Consider Hiring Litigation Counsel For Your 1404 exam- Drafting Attorneys

The 1404 exam is often described by legal commentators as a classic fishing expedition. There is no doubt that the law affords a lot of latitude in favor of the examining party to allow a thorough and probing examination of the drafting attorney. A drafting attorney facing such an examination under oath in the courtroom and ordinarily, with the Surrogate Judge presiding should take the examination seriously.

Consider Retaining Counsel

The first consideration should be whether or not to engage estate litigation counsel. Most attorneys who are examined are excellent estate planners, who do wonderful work and see to it that the decedent’s intentions and instructions are carried out by a well drafted instrument. They are often highly skilled and knowledgeable about tax consequences, asset distribution, beneficiary rights and obligations of fiduciaries relating to planning an estate. However, ordinarily they do not possess litigation skills or experience. Many drafting attorneys work hard to ward off and avoid litigation, but in some instances it is simply unavoidable or known to be associated with some persons involved in the estate plan.

Competency Rule

Drafting attorneys caught up in estate litigation must consider Rule 1.1 requiring competency. The rule prohibits a lawyer from handling a matter which he knows he is not competent to handle. Further, the rule requires that lawyer to become associated with a lawyer who is competent to handle the matter. The rules are clear and leave no ambiguity. Estate planning and drafting attorneys are ordinarily highly competent to plan and draft estate instruments but not experienced or familiar with how to litigate the estate.

Format of Testimony

In considering whether to engage litigation counsel, the drafting attorney must immediately consider how to present the testimony and that of the subscribing witnesses in the absence of counsel handling the litigation. For example, while the law in New York allows the drafter to be sworn on the stand and to testify in a narrative fashion, often even experienced counsel will unintentionally miss required elements necessary for proving the will’s validity or the elements required to prove capacity in court.

The delivery of testimony in a narrative format can be effective in a simple case, but where the attorney client relationship was more extensive or multiple documents or wills are involved the narrative approach generally is not effective and can become a messy trap for the unwary.

Often the attorney who tries to do it all simply cannot handle the sheer volume of all the detailed required tasks associated with both testifying as a witness and handling the litigation. For instance, that attorney would be required to examine the subscribing witness, redirect examine that witness, testify in a narrative, be cross examined and then keep straight what points from the cross examination to cover on a redirect narrative. It is very difficult for any attorney to function as both an advocate and a witness in a client’s case.

Controlling Costs

The cost of litigation is an expense of the estate. It is not an expense of the attorney draftsperson. Experienced litigation attorneys will often readily agree to handle the litigation portion of the estate only. This benefits the client greatly. It allows the attorney who drafted the instrument to handle administration of the estate. This can keep costs down for the estate and permit an efficiency in the administration. It is often consistent with the decedent’s intention that his/her attorney handle the decedent’s estate.

Fending off the Attacks

In many cases the hearing and the potential objections can develop into an aggressive attack on the attorney’s written work product, professional skills, knowledge and efforts as a draftsperson responsible for proper execution of the will.

It is difficult for many attorneys to confront these intense challenges and attempt to withstand an attack as both a witness and advocate. In many of those cases the testimony, particularly the cross examination, can become very hostile. Some attorneys visibly react by coming across as a defensive or quarrelsome witness or worse, as an obstructionist hiding facts.

Some attorneys that represent objectants routinely move to disqualify the attorney drafter from the case, by asserting that the advocate witness rule (Rule 3.7) prohibits counsel from handling the testimony while remaining a witness in the case. Defending against a motion of this nature can chill the attorney client relationship between the drafting attorney and the will’s proponent/fiduciary.