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Determining whether a will is ambiguous is a question of law. A latent ambiguity arises when applying the words of a will to the subject matter of a devise or to a devisee renders the will ambiguous. Latent ambiguities are either cases of equivocation or misnomer and misdescription. The intention of the testator is the polestar of any will construction proceeding. Consequently, where a latent ambiguity exists, extrinsic evidence reflecting the testator's intent is admissible.
Charles Norton Adams (Testator) died, leaving a will executed on 1991. A testator devised part of his estate to a museum art school and directed that a scholarship fund be named after his wife. Before the testator executed his will, the corporate entity that bore the name of the museum art school was dissolved. Appellant, Fine Arts Museum Foundation, assumed the operation of the museum and its art school. Respondent, Olean General Hospital, claimed that the gift had lapsed and that respondent, as the residuary beneficiary, should take the gift. Respondent moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Appellant foundation then sought review of a judgment which held that a testator's will was unambiguous as a matter of law. The trial court found that a devise had failed and, thus, passed to the residuary beneficiary, respondent hospital.
Did the trial court err in ruling as a matter of law that the will is not ambiguous?
The court reversed the trial court’s judgment that a testator's will was unambiguous as a matter of law. The court held that although the will's language was not ambiguous on its face, the will nonetheless contained a latent ambiguity because a named beneficiary, a museum art school, had lost its corporate status. Even though the museum and its art school were no longer a corporation, they still existed and were operated by appellant. The testator's intent to leave part of his estate to the museum art school was clear from the will, even though he misnamed the intended beneficiary. The testator's stepson, also appellant's president, testified that the testator intended to benefit the art museum. The testator's intent was also demonstrated by his wish to honor his wife through a named scholarship fund. Thus, it was premature to hold that the gift had necessarily failed and passed to appellant hospital, the residuary beneficiary.