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Law School Case Brief

Mahoney v. Grainger - 283 Mass. 189, 186 N.E. 86 (1933)

Rule:

A will duly executed and allowed by the court must under the statute of wills be accepted as the final expression of the intent of the person executing it. The fact that it was not in conformity to the instructions given to the draftsman who prepared it or that he made a mistake does not authorize a court to reform or alter it or remould it by amendments. The will must be construed as it came from the hands of the testatrix. Mistakes in the drafting of the will may be of significance in some circumstances in a trial as to the due execution and allowance of the alleged testamentary instrument. Proof that the legatee actually designated was not the particular person intended by the one executing the will cannot be received to aid in the interpretation of a will. When the instrument has been proved and allowed as a will, oral testimony as to the meaning and purpose of a testator in using language must be rigidly excluded. It is only where testamentary language is not clear in its application to facts that evidence may be introduced as to the circumstances under which the testator used that language in order to throw light upon its meaning. Where no doubt exists as to the property bequeathed or the identity of the beneficiary there is no room for extrinsic evidence; the will must stand as written.

Facts:

Helen A. Sullivan, a single woman, wrote a will in which the residue was given to “my heirs at law living at the time of my decease…to be divided among them equally.” At the time of Sullivan’s death, her living relatives were an aunt, who was her sole heir at law, and several first cousins. At the hearing of a petition by the cousins seeking distribution to them of the residue, it was found that the testatrix, Sullivan, in response to a question by the draftsman of the will as to the disposition of the residue, had replied that she had a number of first cousins, "let them share it equally"; and that the will then was drafted and read to and executed by her. The petition was dismissed, and the first cousins sought a review of the trial court’s decision.

Issue:

Did the first cousins of the testatrix have the right to share with the residue?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court held that the testatrix's statements to the attorney were admissible only to show the material circumstances at the time of executing the will. Regardless of language that the heirs were to divide the residue among them equally, it was clear that the testatrix had but one heir. There was no latent ambiguity in the will permitting the testatrix's statements to be introduced to prove her testamentary intent. According to the Court, the will must be given effect as executed by the testatrix, even if its terms were not in conformity to the instructions which the testatrix gave to the draftsman. The Court concluded that the aunt of the testatrix, being her sole heir at law, was the only person entitled to the residue, notwithstanding the use of the words, "heirs at law . . . to be divided among them equally," in the residuary clause.

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