An important aspect of estate planning is drafting a will. However, including a will does not always indicate that the legal document will serve the role it was intended to. This is especially true if a will is missing after the death of a loved one in California or elsewhere.
When Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter for the classic movie "E.T.," died of cancer last November, she reportedly left an estate worth about $22 million. Mathison was married to actor Harrison Ford for 21 years and had two children with him. In addition to "E.T.," she also wrote the script for the family film "The Black Stallion."
Mathison had apparently prepared a will before her death, but there is a complication: according to court documents, her business manager has been unable to locate the original. Fortunately, in California this is not necessarily an insurmountable problem.
Under California's Probate Code, when an original will is lost the executor can file a petition for probate of a lost will. The petition should include a statement of the terms of the will. A copy of the will can serve as evidence of the will's terms.
In a petition to probate a lost will, the court must be satisfied that the decedent did not revoke the will by destroying it. Under some circumstances when a will cannot be located, California law creates a presumption that it was revoked.
The presumption can arise if the will was last in the possession of the testator, and neither the original nor a copy can be found after the testator has died. The presumption places the burden of producing evidence onto the person seeking to admit the will to probate. But if no one is contesting the will, it should not be difficult to overcome the presumption of revocation.
The situation involving Mathison's estate shows that even with careful estate planning, unexpected developments can complicate the probate process. Therefore, it is important that individuals understand the probate court procedures, helping them overcome this and other potential obstacles.
Source: New York Daily News, "Will for Melissa Mathison, 'E.T.' screenwriter and ex-wife of Harrison Ford, is missing," Peter Sblendorio, Dec. 29, 2015