Law School Case Brief
In re Estate of Gibbs - 14 Wis. 2d 490, 111 N.W.2d 413 (1961)
Under rules as to construction of a will, unless there is ambiguity in the text of the will read in the light of surrounding circumstances, extrinsic evidence is inadmissible for the purpose of determining intent. A latent ambiguity exists where the language of the will, though clear on its face, is susceptible of more than one meaning, when applied to the extrinsic facts to which it refers. There are two classes of latent ambiguity. One, where there are two or more persons or things exactly measuring up to the description in the will; the other where no person or thing exactly answers the declarations and descriptions of the will, but two or more persons or things answer the description imperfectly. Extrinsic evidence must be resorted to under these circumstances to identify which of the parties, unspecified with particularity in the will, was intended by the testator.
A decedent left a will that purportedly left a devise to the stranger, who could not properly account for the reason for the bequest. However, but for a mistaken middle initial, the bequest would have gone to the friend, who had been left bequests in prior wills of the decedent. The trial court found that the decedent intended to leave the bequest to the friend, not the stranger, and so ordered. The stranger appealed.
Did the decedent intend to leave the devise to his friend although there was a mistake to the beneficiary's middle initial?
The court affirmed the order of the trial court granting the bequest to the friend, not the stranger. The court first found that the stranger could not offer any logical reason why the decedent would have left anything to him in the will. However, the court observed that there was no ambiguity -- the stranger was the only person bearing the name of the legatee in the will. Ordinarily, where there is no ambiguity, courts would not reform wills. However, the court found where there were details subject to mistake, such as middle initials and addresses, courts overlooked such details in preference to the intent of the decedent. Here, the clear intent of the decedent was to leave property to the friend, not the stranger, despite the erroneous middle initial
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