New California Case (Estate of Duke): When Holographic Will Was Unambiguous, Assets Passed By Intestacy As The Will Failed To Address The Circumstances

Estate of Irving Duke, California Court of Appeal, Second District, Case No. B227954, December 4, 2011.

Decedent Irving Duke’s holographic will provided that on his death all of his property shall pass to his wife Beatrice, and that if Beatrice died at the same time that Decedent died all of his property was go pass to two charities.  The will did not address the situation where Beatrice might predecease Irving.  Beatrice did in fact die five years before Irving.  The two charities petitioned for probate of the will.  Two of Decedent’s nephews, who were not named in the will, argued that the condition under which the charities would have been entitled to distribution had not occurred, and that as a result Decedent’s estate should pass pursuant to the intestacy statutes.

The court agreed with the Decedent’s nephews, holding that as the will was unambiguous, extrinsic evidence could not be admitted in an effort to establish the Decedent’s intent, nor could an argument be made as to the construction or reformation of the will.  As the will was unambiguous, the clear result was that the Decedent’s assets should pass in accord with the intestacy statutes—it would be improper conjecture or speculation for the court to engage in an effort to correct the dispositive clause.

Although I don’t necessarily disagree that the will was unambiguous as far as its terms provided, it seems clear the will failed to address the situation where Beatrice predeceased Irving.  Thus, it can be argued that the will was ambiguous as to the events that did actually occur, i.e., that Beatrice predeceased Irving. It is also a maxim in California probate law that a Decedent’s estate should pass as the Decedent intended.  Based on the wording of the will, it is also no more certain that Decedent intended his estate to pass by intestacy.  Accordingly, it is arguable that extrinsic evidence should have been admitted as to Irving’s intent.  The court’s ultimate bright-line rule doesn’t necessarily do justice to the Decedent’s intent.

Dave Tate, Esq. (California)
Trust, estate, conservatorship and elder litigation and difficult administrations; hourly, referral/fee, contract, co-counsel, split hourly/contingency, and contingency arrangements considered.

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