July 31, 2015

Estate of Duke - Will Reformation

The law in California used to be that in the case of an unambiguous clause in a will, extrinsic evidence could not be introduced to reform it. Stated in non-legalese, the term or terms of a will could not be altered through documentation outside the four corners of the will if the term or terms were clear. This past week, however, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that extrinsic evidence could be used in such a case.

Estate of Duke (2015) ___ C4th ___

The facts of the case were straight-forward:

"Irving Duke prepared a holographic will providing that, upon his death, his wife would inherit his estate and that if he and his wife died at the same time, specific charities would inherit his estate. The handwritten will, however, contained no provision addressing the disposition of his estate if, as occurred here, he lived longer than his wife. The specified charities contend that at the time the testator wrote his will, he specifically intended to provide in his will that the charities would inherit his estate in the event his wife was not alive when he died. The courts below excluded extrinsic evidence of the testator's intent, finding that the will was unambiguous and failed to provide for the circumstance in which his wife predeceased him. Therefore, finding that Duke died intestate, the court entered judgment in favor of the heirs at law, Seymour and Robert Radin."

Prior case law, i.e. Estate of Page (1967) 254 Cal.App.2d 702, 719, held that a will could not be reformed, through the use of extrinsic evidence, if the will's language was unambiguous.  

However, in the Estate of Duke, this prior case law was overturned. The Duke Court held that "an unambiguous will may be reformed to conform to the testator's intent if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the testator's expression of intent at the time the will was drafted, and also establishes the testator's actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted."

Given the amount of money at stake, over $5M, it is not hard to see why this case ended up in the California Supreme Court. Litigation is expensive and appeals are even more expensive. Hence, there typically is a large amount of money at stake when a probate case reaches the California Supreme Court.