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Dependent Relative Revocation: Will & Trust Interpretation

Interpreting wills, trusts and powers of attorney can be difficult, especially given the often old-fashioned, grandiose language such documents usually implement. Things can become even more complex when there are will/trust amendments/codicils. One of the more confusing legal doctrines that can apply when there are uncoordinated cancellations and/or amendments to a will is dependent relative revocation (“DRR”).

A general statement of DRR is that when a Will, or portions thereof, are canceled in order to change the Will, and the attempt fails for lack of due authentication, or for some other reason, this effort to revoke will be treated as relative and dependent upon the efficacy of the new disposition intended to be substituted; therefore, if the attempted disposition fails and is inoperative, the revocation fails also, then the original Will remains in effect. Watson v. Landvatter, 517 S.W.2d 117, 120 (Mo. 1974).

A good example of the doctrine in action is in Varnon v. Varnon, 67 Mo. App. 534 (1896). In that case, the testator tore out one page of his Will and substituted another, materially different page without further attestation. Without further attestation, the new page was invalid. Nonetheless, the court applied DRR and restored the prior page, finding that he intended to revoke the page  by the immediate substitution of another page with the change indicated. His intention to revoke depended upon, and was intended to be made by, the substituted page.

Admittedly, DRR is a rare bird. It is not argued in courts much. The Varnon case discussed above is from over a century ago. However, the existence of judicial theories like DRR reflects the very nuanced approach courts will take in interpreting estate documents.

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