April 30, 2018

Will Interpretation

A primary purpose of a will is to exactly identify who the testator wants to inherit their estate. If the person does not care, they can simply choose to abstain from writing a will and let the laws of intestate succession govern the disposition of the estate. Consequently, their next of kin, heirs to use legal parlance, would inherit their estate.  

In a recent unpublished appellate opinion, the California Court of Appeal had to determine which individual the testator was referring to in their will.

"The decedent had two "Janets" in his life: (1) a daughter named Janet Benninghoff, who was known as Janet Derickson before she married; and (2) a companion, associate, paramour, or friend of sorts named Janet Whelan. Whelan contends that she is "Janet Derickson [] Whelan." The estate administrator and Benninghoff assert that Benninghoff is."  

"A page entitled "Upon Death" lists five numbered clauses. The first clause bequeaths a piece of real estate to "Janet Derickson nee Whelan." The second gives another property to "Janet Benninghofen." The third provides that "Janet Derickson-Whelan, Linn Derickson Jr and Judy Hughes" will share equally in the profits from several of the decedent's assets; the fifth specifies that upon the death of "Janet Derickson, Whelan [¶] Linn Jr Derickson and Judy Hughes," the aforementioned profit shares become part of a remaining trust. The fourth provides that the equity in trust "other than items 1 and 2" goes to Hughes's three children. A separate page entitled "Put in Living Trust" and the following page list ten assets, including the homes referenced in the first and second clauses of the "Upon Death" document."

The court ultimately held that 

"Whelan prevails. Because she had a romantic relationship of some kind with the decedent, "Janet Derickson [] Whelan" could plausibly refer to her; the two may well have planned to wed at some point in the future. The same cannot be said of Benninghoff, who has no ties to the surname "Whelan." And the will provides for Benninghoff as "Janet Benninghofen" elsewhere. In light of the language used and the circumstances surrounding the will's execution, there is only one reasonable construction. Whelan is "Janet Derickson [] Whelan."

Another excerpt from the opinion shed light on how the family viewed the decedent's lady friend:

"At some point before his separation from Mary Sue, the decedent began a relationship of sorts with appellant Janet Whelan. The precise contours of Whelan's status vis-à-vis the decedent are unclear. The decedent's obituary dubbed her a "special friend." She has described their association as "what politely might be termed an `extramarital illicit relationship' for an extended period." In briefing before the probate court, Mary Sue, Benninghoff, and the administrator used the more colorful designation "paramour." However, in other briefing before the probate court, the administrator opted for more distant language, stating Whelan "was apparently an associate of the [d]ecedent, but the extent of that relationship is unknown."

San Bernardino County Superior Court case # PROPS0900650.