California Supreme Court endorses reformation of unambiguous wills based on clear expression of testator’s intent.
After a person has died and there is a conflict between an unambiguous will and his clearly expressed intent, which one wins?
It depends, said the California Supreme Court in a significant decision issued earlier in this week in which the Court made two important reversals of long-standing law by holding that intent can not only win out over unambiguous writing under some circumstances, but that an unambiguous will can be reformed to reflect this intent.
The decedent in this case, Irving Duke, prepared a holographic will in 1984 in which he left all of his property to his wife, with the exception of “the sum of One dollar ($1.00) and no more” to his brother. The will further stated that Mr. Duke had “intentionally omitted all other persons, whether heirs or otherwise” who were not mentioned in the will and that he intended to “specifically disinherit all persons whomsoever claiming to be.”
Although Mr. Duke accounted for the circumstance in which he and his wife died at the same time, in which case his estate was to be divided in two, with half being donated to the City of Hope in the name of his sister and the other half being donated to the Jewish National Fund in the names of his parents, he failed to account for what should be done in the event that his wife pre-deceased him. Of course, this is precisely what happened.
As a result, Mr. Duke’s nephews sued to obtain what they claimed to be “their share” of the estate, arguing that because Mr. Duke’s will was unambiguously silent on how the estate should be distributed if his wife pre-deceased him, the estate had to pass to them. The charities named in the will, however, opposed and argued that it was clearly Mr. Duke’s intent that his estate should be divided between the two charities.
After many pages of exploring the long-standing rules in California with respect to extrinsic evidence being used to reform an unambiguous will, the Court sided with the charities and, in a departure from previous law, held that now “an unambiguous will may be reformed if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the expression of the testator’s intent at the time the will was drafted and also establishes the testator’s actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted.”
With this significant change in the law governing the reformation of wills based on extrinsic evidence, there are two important considerations for individuals in the process of drafting a will or in the process of revising a will:
First, given the newness of this change in law, it will take time for the lower courts to agree on a framework for how best to implement the Court’s ruling, particularly given that the Court was clear that not every case of conflict between intent and writing would resolve in favor of intent. So it still remains inadvisable to allow careless or imprecise writing in a will, as it will be some time before there is clarity on what is sufficient to allow a will to be reformed based on evidence of intent. In general, the best practice remains to account for all possibilities and instruct distribution for each one.
Second, it is clear that courts now have a significant degree of flexibility to mitigate certain failures or mistakes in the drafting of a will when presented with the clear, specific and written expression of the intent of the testator. As such, it would generally be worthwhile to consider inserting into the will itself, or in a document accompanying the will, a clear, plain statement of the intent behind the distribution of the estate. Although there are no guarantees, under the Court’s new framework such a statement could make the difference between your estate being distributed according to your wishes and being distributed in a radically different manner than you envisioned, all because of a mistake in the writing.
In re Estate of Duke
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