Would Ron Swanson’s Will Be Valid Under Texas Law?
Testing the Simplicity of Wills, Ron Swanson’s Will Also Puts Texas Estate Law to the Test
Wills are complicated legal documents that should be carefully crafted with several terms and many details that cover at least a couple of pages — right?
Nope, that’s ALL wrong in the eyes of Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, the rugged, ultra-masculine libertarian character who is all about simplicity and small government.
In fact, Ron breaks out his will in one episode to hilarious effect because it’s a one-sentence, handwritten will that he wrote when he was 8 years old.
Comedy and fiction aside, could Ron Swanson’s will really hold up in a Texas court today?
What issues would it raise and how would those be resolved?
Let’s answer those questions by taking a closer look at the details of the will and what Texas estate laws and insurance code have to say about them.
The Details of Ron Swanson’s Will
Here is the single sentence comprising Ron Swanson’s will:
Upon my death, all of my belongings shall transfer to the man or animal who
has killed me.
Handwritten by Ron at the age of 8, the will also includes:
- About 7 symbol-like drawings beneath the one sentence: The meaning of these is never conveyed on the show, but Ron clarifies that “the man who kills me will know” what those symbols represent.
- His name at the very bottom: While this doesn’t have the appearance of a signature, the “Ron Swanson” at the end does seem to have the effect of a signature.
Ultimately, Ron does agree to see a lawyer when he’s told that his will isn’t valid — and that most of his belongings will go to the government if he doesn’t have a valid will when he passes away — asking an attorney to do whatever’s necessary to make his original will legal in Indiana (where the show takes place).
This 3-minute clip not only sets up the episode, but it also perfectly sets the stage to examine this will under Texas estate law.
Can an 8-Year-Old Legally Write a Will in Texas?
Before diving into the details of what’s written in the will, it’s crucial to consider who is legally permitted to execute a will under Texas law. According to Tex. Est. Code Sec. 251.001(1), individuals who can execute wills are those who are “of sound mind” and who, at the time of creating the will, are either:
- 18 years of age or older
- Married or previously married
- Members of the U.S. armed forces (or an auxiliary) or the U.S Maritime Service
So, in general, an 8-year-old would not be legally permitted to execute a will under Texas law unless they were married, previously married, or part of the military. With Ron Swanson, as with most 8-year-olds, there are pretty slim chances that marriage or military affiliation would get him past the age requirements for executing wills in Texas.
Consequently, Ron’s will would likely be invalid based on the fact that he wasn’t 18 or older when he wrote it.
Now, setting aside the age issue for a moment, let’s say Ron Swanson rewrote that same will today, as a legal adult over the age of 18, rewriting it exactly as he did when he was 8. Would it hold up under Texas law or would it be invalidated by a court?
5 Reasons Ron Swanson’s Will Might Be Valid in Texas
Texas law does not specifically invalidate Ron Swanson’s will, despite its bizarre and somewhat perplexing contents. In fact, under Texas estate and insurance codes, Ron Swanson’s will is NOT invalid simply because:
- The will is handwritten without any witness signatures: Holographic (handwritten) wills can be legal in Texas, and “a will written wholly in the testator’s handwriting is not required to be attested by subscribing witnesses” (Tex. Est. Code Sec. 251.052). So, the fact that there were no witnesses to the execution of Ron’s holographic will (and, hence, no witness signatures on the document) does not invalidate it under Texas law.
- A beneficiary is not identified by name: Beneficiaries can be identified by their relationship to the testator (will maker) and not necessarily by name. In fact, this is a common practice in wills, with language like “I leave the house to my surviving children,” for example. Consequently, identifying his beneficiary with the general language of “the man or animal” IS acceptable under Texas law and would not be grounds to declare the will invalid.
- The will lacks specifics: Beyond not specifically naming a beneficiary, Ron’s will also does not specifically identify his assets or include any real specifics outside of describing the beneficiary. That may create issues when it’s time to track down and transfer Ron’s assets, but it won’t create issues regarding the validity of the will. In fact, a long-standing precedent for holographic wills involves a case in which a man, trapped under a tractor, used his pocket knife to carve the following into the fender of the tractor, “In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife.” The man did die, and a court later upheld that as a legal will. So, specificity will not make or break the validity of Ron’s will in Texas.
- An animal may be the beneficiary: Animals are included in wills, trusts, and estate planning documents all of the time. This typically involves pets, with owners setting up pet trusts and naming trustees to oversee those trusts. For a couple of extreme examples here, think about celebrities like Michael Jackson who reportedly left $2 million to his chimp Bubbles or Leona Helmsley who reportedly left $12 million to her dog Trouble. So, again, Ron’s will would not automatically be rejected simply because of who — or what — he has named as his beneficiary.
- There are symbols: If there was no way to decipher the mysterious symbols on Ron’s will, a court could reject them. Still, the presence of symbols or a potentially invalid term of a will would not automatically render the entire will invalid as well.
With all of that cleared up, there’s still an elephant in the room with Ron Swanson’s will, and that’s the issue of whether a murderer can legally inherit anything from someone (s)he kills.
The Slayer Rule in Texas: Can a Murderer Inherit from the Slain?
As a matter of public policy, most states have a Slayer Statute on the books to bar murderer beneficiaries, meaning an individual who kills someone is not legally allowed to then inherit items from the murdered person. While Texas does not have a codified Slayer Statute, it does have a Slayer Rule formed under common law decisions.
Additionally, Texas Insurance Code (Sec. 1103.151) bars murderers from collecting the life insurance proceeds of the slain victims.
Considering common law decisions, Texas Insurance Code, and general public policy concerns about incentivizing murder, any Texas court could very well reject Ron Swanson’s will. If that occurred, his estate would be subject to Texas intestacy laws, meaning the statutes would determine how to divide the estate and who the beneficiaries would be.
Nevertheless, the fundamental purpose of a will is to change the law. Essentially, when someone creates a will, they are creating a legal document that intervenes and revises intestacy laws for a given estate, dictating exactly how the testator (will maker) wants his or her assets to be distributed and who should get what. The testator creates the will of sound mind, knowing they’re changing how the laws in Texas would typically apply to their estate.
Arguably, the testator could do the exact same thing with regards to the Slayer Rule, choosing the beneficiary (s)he wants — with full knowledge that they are changing how the current law, the Slayer Rule, would apply to their estate and circumstances.
Additionally, with the case of Ron Swanson’s will, the Slayer Rule would NOT apply if:
- The murderer ended up being an animal, as the rule only applies to people.
- The murderer was legally “insane” at the time of the killing and, therefore, didn’t “willfully” kill the victim.
- The killing was done in self-defense.
All of that opens up plenty of room to counter any challenges to the will’s validity based on the Slayer Rule, raising fascinating new questions about murderer beneficiaries, some of which the courts have never had to answer before.
Would Ron Swanson’s Will Be Contested in Texas Today?
While there are certainly ways to argue that Ron Swanson’s will, written by adult Ron, would be valid under Texas law, that does not preclude the possibility that the will could be contested in a Texas court. In fact, any interested party in Ron’s estate could contest his will in Texas (Tex. Est. Code Sec. 55.001).
Effectively, that means that if Ron’s spouse, children, creditors, or others doubt the validity of the will and want to legally challenge it in court, they can. Plus, if they’re able to present evidence that Ron Swanson was not of sound mind when he created the will, they could have a much stronger argument against the validity of the will.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Make the Ron Swanson Mistake
As cool, charming, and amusing as Ron Swanson is on Parks and Recreation, following in his footsteps when it comes to making a will is not prudent. While the document itself would not serve as a valid will in Texas due merely to the fact that he executed it at 8 years old, other elements of the will would likely hold up under Texas law — and an argument could be made against the Slayer Rule to uphold the one term of Ron’s will. Ultimately, that could lead to lots of confusion, court hearings, and real challenges in carrying out Ron’s final wishes.
So, the bottom line is that you don’t want to make the mistake of creating a will like Ron Swanson. If you want to be confident that your will is valid, that your final wishes will be carried out just how you planned, and that your loved ones will have minimal headaches with your future estate, you want to create your will with the help of an experienced wills and estate planning attorney — and you’ll want to revisit your will every couple of years or with bigger life changes to make sure that your will still makes sense and reflects your wishes.
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Todd A. Wilson
Todd A. Wilson has been practicing law since 2007, with the aim of educating all strata of society and sharing crucial insights about the importance of estate planning, probate, and more.
The Law Office of Todd A. Wilson (also known as TAW Law TX) offers affordable estate planning and probate services.