California Supreme Court Overrules 50 Year Precedent Regarding Unambiguous Wills

Irving Duke prepared a holographic will providing that, upon his death, his wife would inherit his estate and that if he and his wife died at the same time, specific charities would inherit his estate.

This will is not ambiguous, there are two options here: Option 1, when Irving dies, his wife will inherit his estate. Option 2, if they die at the same time, specific charities will inherit the estate.

What about Option 3? What if his wife dies before he dies? That is not covered by the will and so the will is not applicable to this situation and must be disregarded.

The California Supreme Court rejected this argument. Despite being unambiguous, it ruled that an unambiguous will may be reformed if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the expression of the testator’s intent at the time the will was drafted and also establishes the testator’s actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted.

Author’s comment: Last week, SRH was discussing the validity of oral operating agreements in Delaware when Jon Hayes made a mind blowing statement, “Remember, the piece of paper is never THE CONTRACT.  It is always evidence of the promises the parties made to each other which is THE CONTRACT.” Wait, so this piece of paper is not the contract? It is only evidence of our mutual understanding? Then it makes sense to allow other evidence in to support whatever the parties purport their understanding or intent was.

The conservatives would say this is a contradiction because if the written document is not ambiguous, it is not only evidence of the parties’ understanding but it is conclusive evidence of their understanding. The reason this logic is flawed is because I can write something that is not ambiguous thinking it meant something else. If you accept this, then an unambiguous contract only shifts the burden to the other party to overcome what is written with clear and convincing evidence.

You can read the full opinion here.

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