Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Page 1


S.C. Snuffs Rule Barring Extrinsic Evidence Where Will Is Clear


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday abrogated the court-made rule that extrinsic evidence may not be admitted to reform a will that is unambiguous.

“We hold that an unambiguous will may be reformed to conform to the testator’s intent if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the testator’s expression of intent at the time the will was drafted, and also establishes the testator’s actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for a unanimous court.

The holding comes in a case where, according to the earlier Court of Appeal decision, the estate is valued at more than $5 million.

The testator, Irving Duke, provided in his 1984 holographic will that his estate was to go to his wife, Beatrice Duke, with the exception of $1 going to his brother. It set forth that if he and his wife were to “die at the same moment,” half of the estate would go to the City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center in Duarte, and the other half to the Jewish National Fund.

The will was silent as to the disposition of the estate in the event he survived his wife—which is what happened. She died in 2002; he died in 2007.

Applying the rule that extrinsic evidence cannot be introduced where the testamentary instrument is clear on its face, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff held that Irving Duke died intestate, and awarded the estate to the heirs at law.

His action was over the protest of charities that this failed to give effect to a disinheritance clause, providing:

 “I hereby declare that I have thought of and considered each and every person who would inherit from me had I died intestate and who is not mentioned in this Will, and I hereby declare that I do not desire to devise or bequeath to such person or persons any sum whatsoever and I hereby disinherit such person or persons.”

Suzukawa’s Opinion

The charities appealed and the Court of Appeal for this district affirmed. Then-Justice Steven C. Suzukawa (since retired) explained that the decision was compelled in light of the bar on extrinsic evidence erected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Estate of Barnes (1965) 63 Cal.2d 580.

He suggested:

“[P]erhaps the rule regarding the admission of extrinsic evidence should be more flexible when a testators conduct after 12 an event that would otherwise cause his will to be ineffective brings into question whether the written word comports with his intent Barnes takes that option out of our hands. Perhaps it is time for our Supreme Court to consider whether there are cases where deeds speak louder than words when evaluating an individuals testamentary intent.”

In the petition for review, former Los Angeles County Bar Association President Robin Meadow argued that “[a]lone among the potential subjects of written instruments in California, wills are slaves to written language at the expense of effectuating the author’s true intent.” He wrote:

“As the Court of Appeal urged, this Court should grant review and revisit the four corners rule as expressed in Barnes and its predecessors and bring the law of implied gifts in line with modern statutory, scholarly, and jurisprudential developments.”

Suggestion Taken

Cantil-Sakauye said in yesterday’s decision:

“We granted review to consider whether the rule applied in Barnes…should be reconsidered….[W]e hold that the categorical bar on reformation of unambiguous wills is not justified….”

She explained:

“In California, extrinsic evidence is generally admissible to correct errors in documents, including donative documents other than wills….

“In addition, California courts have admitted extrinsic evidence to apply to the construction of a will to accomplish what is arguably or has the effect of reforming a will….

“Principles allowing the admission of extrinsic evidence to identify and resolve ambiguities in wills have also been invoked to correct attorneys’ drafting errors and thereby to reform wills….

“Extrinsic evidence is admissible not only to aid in the construction of a will, but also to determine whether a document was intended to be a will….”

The chief justice observed that extrinsic evidence is no more reliable when introduced for those purpose than if it were allowed for the purposes of correcting an error in a will.

Testator’s Actual Intent

Cantil-Sakauye wrote:

“Rather than introducing uncertainty into estate planning, allowing reformation of a will upon a clear and convincing showing of a mistake in expression and the testator’s actual and specific intent helps ensure that the testator’s affairs are settled as intended. And because the doctrine is relevant only in the context of litigation, and it affects the distribution of an estate only upon a determination by clear and convincing evidence of a mistake in the will and of the testator’s actual intent at the time the will was drafted, adoption of the doctrine will not diminish the principles of law that encourage the preparation of well-drafted, properly executed wills.”

The case was remanded for a determination of the testator’s intent, in light of extrinsic evidence.

Yesterday’s decision was unanimous, meaning there was a change of position by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who in 2012 had voted to let the Court of Appeal decision stand (as had Justice Joyce Kennard, since retired).

The case is Estate of Duke, 2015 S.O.S. 3800.

Representing the charities were Susan Cooley of the Encino law firm of Oldman, Cooley, Sallus, Gold, Birnberg & Coleman; Reynolds Cafferata of the downtown Los Angeles firm of Rodriguez, Horii, Choi & Cafferata; Gerald Serlin and Douglas Benedon of the Woodland Hills firm, Benedon & Serlin, and Robin Meadow, Robert A. Olson and Jeffrey E. Raskin of the mid-Wilshire firm of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland.

Attorneys for the heirs at law were Margaret Lodise of the Bunker Hill firm of Sacks, Glazier, Franklin & Lodise; and Mary-Christine Sungaila, presently of Haynes and Boone in Costa Mesa and formerly of Bunker Hill’s Snell & Wilmer.


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