Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-503

Current through Acts effective through 5/29/2024 of the 2024 Legislative Session
Section 15-11-503 - Writings intended as wills
(1) Although a document, or writing added upon a document, was not executed in compliance with section 15-11-502, the document or writing is treated as if it had been executed in compliance with that section if the proponent of the document or writing establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent intended the document or writing to constitute:
(a) The decedent's will;
(b) A partial or complete revocation of the will;
(c) An addition to or an alteration of the will; or
(d) A partial or complete revival of the decedent's formerly revoked will or a formerly revoked portion of the will.
(2) Subsection (1) of this section shall apply only if the document is signed or acknowledged by the decedent as his or her will or if it is established by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent erroneously signed a document intended to be the will of the decedent's spouse.
(3) Whether a document or writing is treated under this section as if it had been executed in compliance with section 15-11-502 is a question of law to be decided by the court, in formal proceedings, and is not a question of fact for a jury to decide.
(4) Subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to a designated beneficiary agreement under article 22 of this title.

C.R.S. § 15-11-503

L. 94: Entire part R&RE, p. 998, § 3, effective 7/1/1995. L. 2001: Entire section amended, p. 886, § 2, effective June 1. L. 2010: (4) added, (SB 10 -199), ch. 374, p. 1750, § 10, effective July 1.


Purpose of New Section. By way of dispensing power, this new section allows the probate Court to excuse a harmless error in complying with the formal requirements for executing or revoking a will. The measure accords with legislation in force in the Canadian province of Manitoba and in several Australian jurisdictions. The Uniform Laws Conference of Canada approved a comparable measure for the Canadian Uniform Wills Act in 1987.

Legislation of this sort was enacted in the state of South Australia in 1975. The experience there has been closely studied by a variety of law reform commissions and in the scholarly literature. See, e.g., Law Reform Commission of British Columbia, Report on the Making and Revocation of Wills (1981); New South Wales Law Reform Commission, Wills: Execution and Revocation (1986); Langbein, Excusing Harmless Errors in the Execution of Wills: A Report on Australia's Tranquil Revolution in Probate Law, 87 Colum. L. Rev. 1 (1987). A similar measure has been in effect in Israel since 1965 ( see British Columbia Report, supra, at 44-46; Langbein, supra, at 48-51).

Consistent with the general trend of the revisions of the UPC, Section 2-503 unifies the law of probate and nonprobate transfers, extending to will formalities the harmless error principle that has long been applied to defective compliance with the formal requirements for nonprobate transfers. See, e.g., Annot., 19 A.L.R.2d 5 (1951) (life insurance beneficiary designations).

Evidence from South Australia suggests that the dispensing power will be applied mainly in two sorts of cases. See Langbein, supra, at 15-33. When the testator misunderstands the attestation requirements of Section 2-502(a) and neglects to obtain one or both witnesses, new Section 2-503 permits the proponents of the will to prove that the defective execution did not result from irresolution or from circumstances suggesting duress or trickery - in other words, that the defect was harmless to the purpose of the formality. The measure reduces the tension between holographic wills and the two-witness requirement for attested wills under Section 2-502(a). Ordinarily, the testator who attempts to make an attested will but blunders will still have achieved a level of formality that compares favorably with that permitted for holographic wills under the Code.

The other recurrent class of case in which the dispensing power has been invoked in South Australia entails alterations to a previously executed will. Sometimes the testator adds a clause, that is, the testator attempts to interpolate a defectively executed codicil. More frequently, the amendment has the character of a revision - the testator crosses out former text and inserts replacement terms. Lay persons do not always understand that the execution and revocation requirements of Section 2-502 call for fresh execution in order to modify a will; rather, lay persons often think that the original execution has continuing effect.

By placing the burden of proof upon the proponent of a defective instrument, and by requiring the proponent to discharge that burden by clear and convincing evidence (which Courts at the trial and appellate levels are urged to police with rigor), Section 2-503 imposes procedural standards appropriate to the seriousness of the issue. Experience in Israel and South Australia strongly supports the view that a dispensing power like Section 2-503 will not breed litigation. Indeed, as an Israeli judge reported to the British Columbia Law Reform Commission, the dispensing power "actually prevents a great deal of unnecessary litigation," because it eliminates disputes about technical lapses and limits the zone of dispute to the functional question of whether the instrument correctly expresses the testator's intent. British Columbia Report, supra, at 46.

The larger the departure from Section 2-502 formality, the harder it will be to satisfy the Court that the instrument reflects the testator's intent. Whereas the South Australian and Israeli Courts lightly excuse breaches of the attestation requirements, they have never excused noncompliance with the requirement that a will be in writing, and they have been extremely reluctant to excuse noncompliance with the signature requirement. See Langbein, supra, at 23-29, 49-50. The main circumstance in which the South Australian Courts have excused signature errors has been in the recurrent class of cases in which two wills are prepared for simultaneous execution by two testators, typically husband and wife, and each mistakenly signs the will prepared for the other. E.g., Estate of Blakely, 32 S.A.S.R. 473 (1983). Recently, the New York Court of Appeals remedied such a case without aid of statute, simply on the ground "what has occurred is so obvious, and what was intended so clear." In re Snide, 52 N.Y.2d 193 , 196, 418 N.E.2d 656 , 657, 437 N.Y.S.2d 63 , 64 (1981).

Section 2-503 means to retain the intent-serving benefits of Section 2-502 formality without inflicting intent-defeating outcomes in cases of harmless error.

Reference. The rule of this section is supported by the Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 3.3 (1999).

For provisions relating to the time of taking effect or the provisions for transition of this code, see § 15-17-101 .