Legal Translation of Foreign Wills

Legitimacy of Greek Holographic Will Called into Doubt by Rhode Island Probate Court

We’ve blogged before about the importance of using certified legal translators to translate important documents and contracts for use in foreign jurisdiction. In Paidiou v. Estate of Papadoupouli, the decedent had dual citizenship in the United States and Greece and owned property in both countries. In 2001, she executed a will while residing in Pennsylvania and named her three cousins as the beneficiaries of her estate, all of whom lived in Rhode Island.

Decent Allegedly Executes a Holographic Will in Greece Following Rhode Island Will

In 2013, the decedent purportedly drafted and executed a holographic (or handwritten) will while living in Skiathos, Greece. In this will, the decedent allegedly bequeathed all of her property to a charitable organization named “Hamogelo tou Paidiou,” which when translated from Greek into English, means “The Smile of the Child” (hereafter, “TSOTC”). This will also devised a life estate to an individual the decedent was living with at the time of her death. The decedent reportedly gave the holographic will to her close friend and attorney in Greece.

The decedent died of brain cancer in Greece in 2015. She had neither a spouse nor any descendants. Upon her death, the probate court in Rhode Island appointed an administratrix of the estate. However, her attorney friend in Greece also proceeded with publishing her holographic will in Greece, seeking to institute the charitable organization as the sole heir and devisee of the estate.

Decedent’s Uncle Files Will Contest with Greek Court

In 2016, the decedent’s uncle filed papers contesting the decedent’s will in Greece with the “Court of First Instance at Volos.” The uncle argued that the holographic will was not drafted by the decedent and presented evidence from a handwriting expert that the holographic will was actually written by a third party. While the will contained the decedent’s signature, the uncle claimed that the decedent’s signature was obtained while she was cognitively impaired due to brain cancer.

In 2016, TSOTC filed a petition in the Rhode Island probate court asking the court to stay the probate proceedings pending the outcome of the litigation in Greece. Following a hearing, the probate court entered an order barring the distribution of assets until the resolution of the will contest in Greece. The court also ordered the parties to disclose to one another any information that they had regarding any other assets belonging to the decedent.

In 2017, the Administratrix filed a petition with the probate court requesting access to the decedent’s accounts as well as permission to pay expenses related to the will contest. TSOTC objected and filed a cross-petition requesting an accounting and an order stating that the Administratrix could not use the estate’s assets to contest the will. Following a hearing, the probate court issued an order which lifted the freeze on the decedent’s bank account and allowed the estate’s assets to be used to pay for the fees and costs incurred in the will contest.

Beneficiary in Greek Will Appeals Probate Court Order

TSOTC appealed the probate court’s order and the Administratrix objected, asserting that TSOTC’s appeal was without merit. The Administratrix argued that TSOTC had waived its right to appeal based on res judicata. The court rejected this argument, stating that the Administratrix had failed to meet her burden of proof on this issue.

The parties also presented choice of law arguments regarding whether Rhode Island law or Greek law should be applied to determine whether the Estate could pay for the Administratrix’s costs and fees pertaining to the Greek will contest. TSOTC argued that Greek law should apply because all of the parties to the litigation were Greek and the action was pending in Greece. In turn, the Administratrix argued that the contested property was situated in Rhode Island and that a local probate court could not apply foreign choice of law unless it has been presented with a valid foreign will.

The court first examined whether there existed a conflict of laws, finding that a “true conflict” existed because Rhode Island allows an Estate’s assets to bear the costs of litigation whereas the law of Greece requires the administrator to bear the burden. The court then decided that while both Greece and Rhode Island had an interest in the outcome of the case, that Rhode Island’s interest was more significant. The court noted that the decedent’s will was admitted to probate in Rhode Island in 2001, that the decedent’s heirs (and some of the estate’s assets), were located in Rhode Island, and that the Administratrix had a duty to defend, protect, and preserve the estate’s assets, some of which were located in Rhode Island.

The court also found that the Administratrix had a fiduciary duty to defend the will against potentially fraudulent claims, alluding to the fact that the Greek holographic will may have been a fraud. The court reasoned that the decedent was well educated and had two graduate degrees, and yet, the Greek will was rife with grammatical errors and misused words. The court stated that it was “troubled” by the opinion of the handwriting expert that the handwriting and signature contained in the holographic will was different than examples of the decedent’s handwriting and also appeared to be signed in an “unnatural” position. The court further noted that the decedent had no relationship with TSOTC prior to her death.

Based on the foregoing, the court determined that Rhode Island was the favorable choice of law and also held that the probate court did not err when it allowed the Administratrix to use the Estate to fund the will contest in Greece.

The case is Hamogelo Toy Paidiou a/k/a The Smile of the Child v. Estate of Matoula Papadopouli, Court No. NP-2017-0205, decided on October 25, 2019 in the Superior Court of the State of Rhode Island.

Contact legal translation services company All Language Alliance, Inc. to obtain certified translation of foreign language wills from Greek, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Norwegian, and other languages.  We also provide deposition interpreters via Zoom and in-person in all languages for probate litigation cases.

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