A will – many have one, others have none. And then there are cases where a deceased person leaves several wills. However, the latter does not necessarily lead to problems. In principle, it is possible for someone to draw up several wills, which, if they are formally valid, then exist side by side.
A brief example: A mother names her daughter as sole heir in a will. Later, however, in another will she orders a legacy (e.g. a vintage car) in favor of her son, who is to receive an amount X in the event of her death. Both wills are valid.
It is also conceivable, for example, that a testator writes several wills with the same content and deposits them in different places – to make sure that the surviving dependents actually find one of these wills. Therefore, if there are several wills with an effective form, the last dated will is generally valid.
For example, if there is a will dated May 17, 2010, and one dated December 11, 2014, then the will dated December 2014 is legally valid. Incidentally, a will is only formally valid if the testator has written it in his or her own hand and has also signed it!
Even if the will of May 2010 was notarized and the will of December 2014 is merely handwritten by the testator, the last-dated will is always valid.
So far, so good. But sometimes the existence of several wills can cause massive disputes among the heirs. Especially if one will says: “My daughter is the sole heir” – and another will says: “My son is the sole heir.” If, in addition, both wills are dated, the surviving dependents are faced with a puzzle that is difficult to solve: Who is the sole heir?
Such cases usually end up in court, because a judge then has to decide. “He can check the wills to see there is a difference in address. For example, a testator lived in Hamburg. There, he drew up a will that included his Hamburg address and made his daughter his sole heir. The will does not bear a date.
Later, the testator moved to Munich. There, in another undated will in which his Munich address is noted, he appointed his son as sole heir. Munich was the last residential address of the testator before his death. Therefore, the Munich will is valid and the son is the sole heir.
In order to find out which of the undated and contradictory wills is the most recent and therefore the one that is now valid, the judge can also question witnesses. Another possibility is for the judge to have the paper used checked by experts to see when it was in circulation in each case.
If, for example, the wills were written and/or signed in ink, experts can analyze the ink in a chemical process to determine when it was commercially available. Similarly, if there is a dated will and an undated will, and the judge must sound out which of the documents is the earlier will and which is the later will in time, a court will proceed in a similar manner.
Also a possibility is, in the case of undated and conflicting wills, the survivors can first consult an attorney for inheritance law. With his help, they make an interpretation comparison and thus agree among themselves how they want to deal with the inheritance.
If the surviving dependents cannot agree on a settlement of interpretation, the court must interpret the will – one of the most difficult tasks of a judge, since he or she usually did not know the deceased and therefore does not know his or her last will. However, testators can avoid such an effort by expressing themselves clearly and unambiguously in the will.
To ensure clarity, the later will should mention what is to happen to earlier testamentary dispositions – for example, whether the later will is to be a supplement to the first will. Or whether the later is to replace the first will.
If the later will replaces the first will, it is advisable to preface the new document with a clarifying sentence, which may read something like: I hereby revoke in full all wills previously written by me. However, this is only possible if the testator is not bound by a joint will or an inheritance contract.
If a testator writes a new will, then he or she should obligatorily destroy an existing will. If the will is kept at the probate court, then the old one should be retrieved and preferably destroyed immediately. Ideally, the new will should then also be kept by the probate court.