Upending 50 Years of Settled Law, California Supreme Court Rules Unambiguous Wills May Be Reformed to Correct Mistakes

In a recent case involving a holographic will, the California Supreme Court overturned an historical rule in the probate laws of California and most other States (including New Jersey) barring the admission of extrinsic evidence to reform an unambiguous will, thereby permitting reformation of an unambiguous will to correct a mistake. Estate of Duke, S199435 (July 27, 2015) 

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, two charities would inherit his estate in equal shares: one-half to the City of Hope, and one-half to the Jewish National Fund. Mr. Duke also provided in his will that “I have intentionally omitted all other persons, whether heirs or otherwise, who are not specifically mentioned herein, and I hereby specifically disinherit all persons whomsoever claiming to be, or who may lawfully be determined to be my heirs at law, except as otherwise mentioned in this will.”  The handwritten will, however, contained no provision addressing the disposition of his estate if Mr. Duke outlived his wife. 

Mr. Duke did, in fact, outlive his spouse, and he died leaving no spouse or children. The two charities mentioned in the will petitioned for probate and for letters of administration. Thereafter, Robert and Seymour Radin (the Radins) filed a petition seeking an order distributing the Duke estate to them. The Radins are the sons of Mr. Duke’s sister, and their petition alleged that they are entitled to the distribution of the Duke estate as Mr. Duke’s sole intestate heirs. 

The Radins moved for summary judgment. They asserted that the estate must pass to Mr. Duke’s closest surviving intestate heirs, the Radins, because Mr. Duke did not predecease his wife, nor did Mr. and Mr. Duke “die at the same moment,” and there was no provision in the will for disposition of the estate in the event Mr. Duke survived his wife. In opposition to the motion, the charities offered extrinsic evidence proving that Mr. Duke intended the will to provide that the estate would be distributed to the two charities in the event his wife was not alive to inherit Mr. Duke’s estate when he died. The probate court concluded that the will was not ambiguous, and on that ground, it declined to consider extrinsic evidence of Mr. Duke’s intent. As a result, the probate court granted summary judgment for the Radins. 

The charities appealed, and the Court of Appeals reluctantly affirmed. As they did in the probate court, the two charities argued 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 appeals court noted that 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. 

In affirming the probate court’s decision, the appeals court expressly recognized that “the ultimate disposition of [Mr. Duke’s] property . . . does not appear to comport with his testamentary intent. It is clear that [Mr.Duke] meant to dispose of his estate through his bequests, first to his wife and, should she predecease him, then to the charities. It is difficult to imagine that after leaving specific gifts to the charities in the names and memories of beloved family members, [Mr. Duke] intended them to take effect only in the event that he and his wife died “at the same moment.‟ However, the appeals court ruled that because the Duke will was unambiguous, settled California law precluded consideration of the extrinsic evidence. 

The charities asked the California Supreme Court to review the case, and the Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that “the categorical bar on reformation of unambiguous wills is not justified and that reformation is permissible if clear and convincing evidence establishes an error in the expression of the testator’s intent and establishes the testator’s actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted.” 

In its discussion of the case, the Supreme Court first recognized then current California law admitted extrinsic evidence only to establish that a will is ambiguous and to clarify ambiguities in a will, but did not authorize the admission of extrinsic evidence to correct a mistake in a will when the will is unambiguous. However, after reviewing probate law going back to the original Statute of Wills in 1540, the court concluded that to serve the paramount purpose of probate – to interpret and give effect to a person’s testamentary wishes – courts should be permitted to “reform” wills to correct mistakes. Specifically, the litigant hoping to reform a will must now show clearly and convincingly:  (1) that there’s a drafting mistake and, (2) what the testator’s actual, specific intent for the property was at the time the testator executed the will. 

The case is annexed here – Estate of Duke

The initial Supreme Court brief filed by the two charities is annexed here – Plaintiffs’ Supreme Court Brief in Estate of Duke case

The reply brief filed by the two charities in the Supreme Court is annexed here – Plaintiffs’ Reply Brief in Estate of Duke case

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