Generally, the testimony of at least one attesting witness is required to probate a will. But practitioners will sometimes face a situation where all of the witnesses to a propounded instrument are unavailable or cannot be located to testify in support of the document. In such cases, the common law “ancient document rule” may be relied upon to probate the instrument if it is of a certain age.

New York Courts have been utilizing the ancient document rule as a practical basis for probate since the early nineteenth century (see In re Hehn’s Will, 6 Misc 2d 801 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 1957]). But in the recent case of Matter of Santoro, 2011 NY Slip Op 50920(U), Surrogate McCarty of Nassau County addressed the question of whether the rule can be relied upon where the propounded instrument is only nineteen years old; he held that it cannot.

The basis for the ancient document rule has been explained as twofold: (1) “after a long lapse of time, ordinary testimonial evidence from those who saw the document’s execution or knew the style of handwriting or heard the party admit the execution is practically unavailable, and a necessity always exists for resorting to circumstantial evidence”; and (2) “the circumstance of age-or long existence-of the document, together with its place of custody, its unsuspicious appearance, and perhaps other circumstances, suffice, in combination, as evidence to be submitted to the jury” (In re Hehn’s Will, 6 Misc 2d 801 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 1957], quoting VII Wigmore on Evidence [Third Ed.] §2137]).

In his analysis, Surrogate McCarty did not raise any basis to dispute the genuineness of the instrument, and noted that the application was uncontested. However, he explained that the common law ancient document rule requires the propounded instrument to be at least thirty years old, although some liberal courts have adopted the federal twenty-year rule. Application of the rule to a nineteen-year old instrument was unprecedented. Accordingly, it was held that the instrument could not be probated as an ancient document.

Despite its failure to qualify as an ancient document, the Court explained a statutory basis upon which the instrument may be probated absent the testimony of any witnesses. SCPA §1405[4] provides that the will may be admitted to probate based solely upon “the handwriting of the testator and of at least one of the attesting witnesses and such other facts as would be sufficient to prove the will”. To satisfy this requirement, the Surrogate noted that the handwriting of the predeceased attorney draftsman could be obtained from his original will that was on file with the Court, and proved based upon an affidavit from a handwriting expert that the signature on the propounded instrument was written by the same person who executed his will. Similarly, he stated that the Court would be satisfied with the genuineness of the subject decedent’s signature based upon an affidavit from one of her children or other relatives.   Thus, it appears that the propounded instrument will ultimately be admitted to probate upon the Court’s receipt of the requisite testimony.

The decision in Matter of Santoro serves as a reminder to practitioners that there may often be more than one approach to probating an instrument absent the requisite support from witnesses, and perhaps introduces a method for doing so that may not have otherwise been considered. If a predeceased witness died testate, his will is (in most cases) a public record from which a handwriting expert should be able to testify in satisfaction of SCPA §1405[4]. Nonetheless, contested proceedings of this kind are unlikely to be so simple, especially if the surviving witness were to testify against the instrument (see SCPA §1405[3]).