A Victory for Common Sense in California

A Victory for Common Sense in California

Court allows reformation of unambiguous will

The laws governing wills and trusts are probably more complicated than they need to be, and can even sometimes act against common sense. That's illustrated by a recent case in California centered around "holographic" wills, which are hand written and often lack the signature of witnesses.

Everyone's familiar with the movie scene where a dying man scribbles his last will and testament on a piece of paper before passing on. Most aren't written under such dramatic situations, but they do exist. Their validity, however, is erratic. California honors them fairly broadly, whereas New York, for example, only allows them under certain circumstances, for instance those written in the face of imminent danger by deployed soldiers or mariners at sea.

Even if they are valid, however, they are easily contestable, given that they weren't written by lawyers accustomed to covering every contingency. 

Irving Duke left a handwritten holographic will that stated in no uncertain terms that in the event of his death all of his assets should pass to his wife, and if they died simultaneously, then several specifically listed charities should inherit the estate.

You’ll notice that Mr. Duke failed to provide any guidance on what should happen to his estate should he outlive his wife, which is precisely what happened. So when Irving died in 2007, without a spouse and with no children, his assets passed to Robert and Seymour Radin, his nephews and closest living intestate heirs.

In opposition to the Radins' claims, the charities offered extrinsic evidence of Irving’s intent to leave them the assets if the wife was not alive to receive them; He did not meant to require that they die simultaneously to release the estate to charity. 

This argument was rejected by two lower courts on the ground that there was no ambiguity on that topic in the will itself (since his omission was considered purposeful), so extrinsic evidence wasn’t allowed.

This is a justification that only a lawyer could love. Why would Mr. Duke go through all of the trouble of writing up a fairly comprehensive document, even outlining what should happen to his assets in the extreme corner case scenario of simultaneous death, but leave himself effectively without a will in the highly likely event that he outlived his wife?

Plus, this is a holographic will, so we’re already applying a bit of a lax testamentary standard. Why take such a hard stance on the “unambiguity” of the document, particularly when it’s such an obvious case of accidental omission? Why not at least take a look at outside evidence just to be sure? Unfortunately, the letter of the law often tends to overreach in order to cover the most unlikely circumstances (it’s possible that Irving purposely omitted this section, just not likely) and common sense occasionally buckles under the weight of the law.

Thankfully, the California Supreme Court came to its senses and overturned the previous decisions, ruling that an unambiguous will can be reformed if specific intent can be established and if, by clear and convincing evidence, it can be established the testator made an error in the will. Common sense wins out in the end. If only it happened more often.

The full decision can be read here.

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