All About Estates

Suicide notes and holograph Wills

The relationship between suicide and mental disorder has been well explored.  The recent death of Robin Williams has brought this issue into the public eye. Most studies (especially in later life) find that the majority of suicides are associated with clinically significant psychiatric illness, particularly mood disorders such as Depression.  Moreover, suicide notes are left by about 25% of people who die from suicide.  How many of those notes contain directions for estate distribution (i.e. – Holograph Wills)? In Canada and the UK, a holograph Will is considered a valid form of will and does not need to be witnessed to be considered valid.

In collaboration with the Ontario Coroner’s Office, our group at Sunnybrook (Sinyor et al) examined 285 suicide notes for evidence of Will content, as well as evidence of a mental disorder.  Somewhat unexpectedly, over 20% of those notes were found to have Will content embedded in or in addition to the suicide note.  Of those, almost three quarters were reported to suffer from a major mood or psychotic disorder.  Interestingly, no cases of dementia were identified.  This significant association of suicide and mental disorder makes the finding of a holograph Will associated with suicide, a suspicious circumstance that requires careful retrospective exploration in the event of a challenge to the Will.

About Dr. Ken Shulman
Dr. Shulman graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto in 1973 and did postgraduate training in Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He then went on to do specialty training in Geriatric Psychiatry in London, England. Since 1978, he has been based at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, University of Toronto. He is the inaugural recipient of the Richard Lewar Chair in Geriatric Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, University of Toronto. Currently, he is the Chief of the Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook. Dr. Shulman has had a longstanding interest in the issue of testamentary capacity and vulnerability to undue influence and has been qualified as an expert witness in Estate matters in Ontario and Alberta. Together with colleagues he has published several papers in the area of testamentary capacity in international journals and is a frequent presenter at legal continuing education conferences on Estates and Trusts. Email: