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Ward-Allen v. Gaskins (In re Estate of Creech) - 989 A.2d 185 (D.C. 2010)

Rule:

The primary function of a court in construing the terms of a will is to determine the intent of the testator and to give that intention full effect unless it is contrary to law.

Facts:

On August 13, 1992, Anna Creech executed a will ("1992 will") which contained eighteen items. Several of those items bequeathed various possessions to specific persons. In addition, in Item XIV, Ms. Creech nominated Mr. Mitchell as her personal representative, and named one of her nieces, appellee Lettie Gaskins, as his alternate. On August 11, 1995, Ms. Creech executed a codicil ("1995 codicil") to the 1992 will, explicitly revoking Item XIV, among other things. Although she again nominated Mr. Mitchell as her personal representative, she named Ms. Ward-Allen as the alternate instead of Ms. Gaskins. Ms. Creech ratified, confirmed, and republished her 1992 will "in all respects except as altered or modified by this First Codicil thereto.” Anna Creech died on December 15, 2001, at the age of 94. Nearly five years later, Ms. Ward-Allen filed a petition for standard probate in which she sought appointment as Ms. Creech's personal representative. Ms. Ward-Allen attached the 1992 will and a copy of the 1995 codicil to her petition. Two of Ms. Creech's nieces, Lettie Gaskins and Jessie Marie Davis, filed objections to admission of the 1995 codicil and to Ms. Ward-Allen's petition for standard probate. They based their objections on the fact that Ms. Ward-Allen filed a copy of the 1995 codicil, instead of the original, with the register of wills. After a hearing in August 2008, the trial judge sustained appellees' objections to probating a copy of the 1995 codicil because there was too "much uncertainty about what became of the original" and Ms. Ward-Allen did not meet her burden to "prove what happened to it." He then denied Ms. Ward-Allen's petition for standard probate and admitted the 1992 will to probate. The court also appointed Ms. Gaskins as personal representative, Mr. Mitchell having previously renounced the appointment.

Issue:

Did the trial court err by admitting the 1992 will to probate in its entirety?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court determined that even if it were true that the decedent revoked the codicil by destroying it, the trial court erred by admitting the 1992 will to probate in its entirety. The revocation of the codicil would not reinstate the items in the will that had been revoked. It was undisputed that the codicil had been properly executed, and no evidence was presented suggesting that the decedent had revived the earlier will by re-executing it or executing a new codicil. Thus, the items in the will were not revived and could not be admitted to probate. However, the uncertainty with regard to whether the presumption of revocation was applicable and needed to be resolved. If the applicant sent the original codicil to a third party before the decedent's death, then the decedent would have lost the opportunity for revocation and the presumption would not apply.

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