Law School Case Brief
Nunnenman v. Estate of Grubbs - 2010 Ark. App. 75, 374 S.W.3d 75 (Ct. App.)
The intent of the testator should be ascertained from the instrument itself and effect given to that intent. The purpose of construing a will is to arrive at the testator's intention. However, that intention is not that which existed in his or her mind, but rather that which is expressed by the language of the instrument.
In 2003, decedent Donald Grubbs transferred his individual retirement account ("IRA") to Raymond James and Associates, Inc., naming appellant Chrissey Nunnenman as the beneficiary to receive the residue in the event of his death. Decedent was hospitalized in May 2005 and died on June 9 of that year. On June 3, 2005, decedent summoned an attorney to the hospital, where decedent made and executed a last will and testament that did not mention the IRA account. This will left decedent's entire estate to his mother, appellee Shervena Grubbs, who was also named as executrix. In that capacity, Grubbs filed a lawsuit on behalf of appellee Estate of Grubbs seeking an injunction freezing the assets of the IRA account based on her assertion that a note that she found in decedent's Bible months after his death had the effect of changing the beneficiary designation in the IRA account to make her the beneficiary. The trial court agreed and awarded her the account. Nunnenman appealed, asserting that the trial court clearly erred in doing so.
Did the note in question effectively change the beneficiary designation in the IRA account, thereby making Shervena Grubbs the beneficiary thereto?
The court of appeals reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the matter to that court. The court held that the trial court clearly erred in finding that the note Grubbs found was an effective change of the decedent's IRA beneficiary. If the note was regarded as a holographic will, it was revoked by the express terms of the will and by operation of law pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 28-25-109(a)(1) (2004). If the note was not regarded as a will, the rule permitting change of beneficiaries in a will had no application to it, and Grubbs had the burden of proving that the decedent intended for the note to be a change of beneficiaries and did everything reasonably possible to effectuate a change. In light of the undisputed evidence that decedent could and did summon an attorney to his bedside mere days before his death and thereby executed a valid and unambiguous last will, the trial court could not reasonably find that decedent did everything reasonably possible to change beneficiaries given his failure to employ similar efforts to communicate his intent to do so to the custodian of the IRA.
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