Downton Abbey’s season premiere on Sunday night brought in more viewers than any other premiere in PBS’s history. For Downtown devotees, the episode was a little more somber than most. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone; after all, Matthew Crawley was one of the show’s most popular characters and his death was a shock to everyone.
But Matthew’s premature death meant more than just the loss of a great character. He was the sole heir to Downton Abbey, putting the family back in the same difficult situation they were in when the show started. As the episode develops, however, we learn that Matthew wrote a letter to Mary before the family departed for vacation. In the letter, Matthew states that when he returns from vacation, he intends to draft a will making her the sole heiress of his estate. When Matthew wrote the letter, he was not sure if his child would be a son or daughter, which would matter for inheritance purposes.
Lord Grantham doesn’t think that the letter will serve as a valid will. Upon further investigation, Downton’s lawyer(s) show otherwise. The letter demonstrates “testamentary intent,” which for the purposes of Downton Abbey makes the letter valid as a will.
Fast forward to 2014 in Arkansas. Would Matthew Crawley’s letter suffice as a Will in the state of Arkansas today? Generally a Will requires: 1) the person making the Will be a person of sound mind eighteen years of age or older, 2) testamentary intent (an instrument must be executed with testamentary intent, or animus testandi, which is the intention to dispose of one’s property upon one’s death), 3) it be signed by the testator and two (2) witnesses, 4) it must be admitted to a probate court.
There is an exception to all this formality, it is called a holographic Will. A holographic Will must still be made by a person of sound mind eighteen years of age or older whose intention is to dispose of one’s property upon one’s death. When the entire body of the will and the signature is written in the proper handwriting of the testator (the person making the Will), the Will may be established by the evidence of at least three credible disinterested witnesses (an interested witness is a person who receives a beneficial interest under the Will). The disinterested witnesses must corroborate the handwriting and signature of the testator. The Will must still be admitted to probate court for the purpose of proving title to or the right to the possession of any real or personal property disposed of by the Will.
As good estate planning attorneys, we can’t recommend that you depend on a letter to serve as your will. However, in the case of Matthew Crawley’s letter, it could serve as a valid Will not only in England in 1922 but also in Arkansas in 2014.