The sister of a millionaire who amassed her fortune living a frugal lifestyle has won a court case to prove a postcard she wrote is a valid will.

Kathleen Steiner, 59, from Taranaki on New Zealand‘s North Island, died in hospice care in her sister’s arms after a ‘very courageous battle’ in January. Ms Steiner, whose estate was worth $NZ2.8 million ($AU2.1 million) when she died, did not formally prepare her will but wrote various notes on how she wished her estate would be allocated.

Her sister, Margaret Steiner-Joyce, made an application to the High Court of New Zealand to declare the documents as valid.

Written on the back of a postcard and a law firm’s note paper, the signed and dated documents varied in the length and detail.   The informal wills requested Margaret, who worked as a legal executive, ‘sort out who got what of her money’. The informal wills allocated cash gifts to Margaret and another sister, Rosina, while a third sister got nothing.

A court document explained Margaret urged Ms Steiner to write a will and there was also a recorded conversation between the pair about a will and gifts Margaret wished to make.

The sisters knew about the wills and where to find them but they were not touched until after Ms Steiner died. Ms Steiner’s wealth comprised of two properties, a $1000 car, chattels, bank accounts and cash investments. 

According to a court document, Ms Steiner lived in a farmhouse where she grew up and didn’t marry or have children.

‘She lived a frugal lifestyle and amassed considerable wealth in doing so,’ the document stated.

Justice Thomas ruled the documents expressed Ms Steiner’s wishes concerning her estate and ordered Margaret to be the executor of the estate.

estate planning, wills, informal will, valid will, how to write a valid will, estate battles‘I place quite some weight on the fact the three documents are all titled as her will, are signed and all bear the same date,’ she said.

‘In my assessment, read together, they appear to express her testamentary intentions.’

What is an Informal Will?

A document that expresses the testamentary intentions of the author, but does not comply with the formal requirements required by s10 of the Succession Act for a valid will, is commonly known as an informal will.

An informal will must be declared valid by a court before probate can be granted. The court may dispense with the execution requirements for a will, its alteration or revocation and declare an informal will to be valid, which can include any paper or other material on which there is writing, any disc, tape or other material from which sounds, images, writings or messages are capable of being produced or reproduced.

To successfully declare an informal will valid, the court must be satisfied that the deceased intended that the actual document before the court was to be their will.

Writing an informal will is considerably risky.  The expense of bringing such applications to the court will certainly reduce the assets of the estate.

How to Write a Valid Will

The Succession Act 1981 (Qld) outlines how a valid will ought to be written:

  • The will should be in writing. ‘Writing’ is defined to mean any mode of representing or reproducing words in a visible form. Ideally, a will should be typed, but a handwritten will is valid so long as it is clearly printed.
  • It should be signed by the person making it. A signature includes a mark in the case of a blind or an illiterate person.
  • The will should be dated when it is signed. The date the will is signed is important to ensure that it is the deceased’s last will.
  • The signature of the testator should be witnessed by two witnesses. The witnesses must sign after the testator has signed. One of the witnesses may also be the person who signed for the testator, or who helped the testator sign. Both witnesses must be present together at the time of signing by the testator.

If these formalities are not complied with, the will may not be valid, which means that the deceased’s estate will be dealt with as an intestate estate. The way the estate is administered according to the rules of intestacy may not reflect your wishes, nor do they allow for flexibility.

To avoid lengthy and costly court delays, always seek legal advice from a specialist in wills and estates. A thoughtfully considered will should reduce the risk of confusion, the risk of litigation over your will, and be clear about your wishes. To speak to our experienced team, contact us today. We offer a FREE, 10-minute phone consultation.