Law Office of Christopher J. Bagnaschi
California Supreme Court Reverses 50 Old Rule Regarding the Use of Extrinsic Evidence to Interpret Wills
Up until 2 weeks ago, the general rule had been that extrinsic evidence to interpret an otherwise unambiguous will was forbidden. That rule was enunciated in a 1965 case, Estate of Barnes, where a will provided for the distribution of a woman’s estate to her husband. This obviously assumed that she would die first but the reverse occurred. The will made no provision for that scenario and the court in Barnes said that the probate court mustn’t consider extrinsic evidence to determine what the decedent would have intended under these circumstances.
On July 27, 2015, the California Supreme Court modified the rule in Barnes and held that a court may consider extrinsic evidence in certain situations. In that case, Estate of Irving Duke, the maker of the will, Irving Duke, drafted his own holographic (handwritten) will 23 years earlier that listed his wife as the beneficiary of almost his entire estate. The will further provided that if he and his wife should die at the same moment, the estate would be split 50/50 between two charities.
Irving Duke died in 2007 but his wife died five years earlier in 2002. Duke never changed his will to reflect the earlier passing of his wife. The two charities filed a petition in probate court seeking the entire proceeds from Duke’s estate. Duke’s relatives claimed that the estate she go to them under the default inheritance format known as “intestate succession” insofar as the will, in their opinion, was unambiguous that the estate should go to the charities only if Duke and his wife died at the same time. Since they didn’t, the gift to the charities cannot occur and the estate should pass according to the statutory rules.
The probate court and the court of appeal both ruled in favor of Duke’s relatives and upheld blocking the charities’ attempts at introducing evidence as to what Duke wanted to happen if his wife died before him. They claimed that the court should consider extrinsic evidence to clarify Duke’s intent. The lower courts all agreed that such evidence was not permitted pursuant to the holding in Barnes.
The California Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal and trial court and in doing so overruled the 50 year-old precedence established in Barnes. The Supreme Court didn’t rule on the validity of the claims of the two charities, only that they should have the opportunity to present extrinsic evidence to show that Irving Duke intended for the charities to receive his estate if his wife didn’t survive him. They may or may not succeed in that effort but they will be afforded the opportunity to present their case to the probate court.
Even though to many observers the Duke will was not ambiguous, it did fail to take into consideration what might happen if Duke’s wife died first. A carefully prepared estate plan would have removed this latent ambiguity. The best way to avoid these mishaps is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
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