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Law School Case Brief

Estate of Duke - 61 Cal. 4th 871, 190 Cal. Rptr. 3d 295, 352 P.3d 863 (2015)

Rule:

In cases in which clear and convincing evidence establishes both a mistake in the drafting of the will and the testator's actual and specific intent at the time the will was drafted, it is plain that denying reformation would defeat the testator's intent and result in unjust enrichment of unintended beneficiaries. Given that the paramount concern in construing a will is to determine the subjective intent of the testator, only significant countervailing considerations can justify a rule categorically denying reformation.

Facts:

A testator's holographic will provided that, upon his death, his wife would inherit his estate and that if he and his wife died at the same time, specific charities would inherit his estate. However, the will contained no provision addressing the disposition of the testator's estate if, as occurred here, he lived longer than his wife. The charities that were named in the will petitioned for probate and for letters of administration. The testator's heirs filed a petition for determination of entitlement to estate distribution, alleging that they were entitled to the distribution of the testator's estate as the testator's sole intestate heirs. The probate court concluded that the will was not ambiguous, and on that ground, it declined to consider extrinsic evidence of the testator's intent, and granted summary judgment for the heirs. The intermediate appellate court affirmed the judgment of the probate court.

Issue:

May an unambiguous will be reformed if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the expression of the testator's intent at the time the will was drafted?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of California reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded the case with directions. The court held that the categorical bar on reformation of wills is not justified, and that an unambiguous will may be reformed if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the expression of the testator's intent at the time the will was drafted and also establishes the testator's actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted. The charities' theory that the testator actually intended at the time he drafted his will to provide that his estate would pass to the charities in the event his wife was not alive to inherit the estate was sufficiently particularized, with respect to the existence of such a mistake and the testator's intent, that the remedy of reformation was available if established by clear and convincing evidence. 

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