Thursday, December 22, 2011

Judges bound to follow letter of the law, no matter the result

Often, judges will try to get the right result, even if it means doing legal gymnastics to get there.  But not always.  In Estate of Irving, 2011 Cal.App.Lexis 1515, Irving Duke made a will that provided for a gift of his entire estate to his wife.  He also provided that if he and his wife died simultaneously, then his estate would divided equally and distributed to two charitable beneficiaries.  There was no provision for what would happen to his estate if he outlived his wife.  Mr. Duke outlived his wife by five years, and died without issue (children, grandchildren, etc.).  Based on a strict reading of the will, there was no place for his property to go, meaning by outliving his wife, his will created an intestacy.

The charities filed a petition for probate of Mr. Duke's estate and asked the court to rule that Mr. Duke intended that his estate was to be distributed to them.  In support of this, they introduced evidence of Mr. Duke's intent including copies of annuity agreements favoring the charities, and testimony from witnesses of conversations where Mr. Duke confirmed his intent to give his estate to the charities.  Mr. Duke's  nephews, who would receive his estate if there was an intestacy, objected.

The court ruled that the language of will was unambiguous, even if it didn't make sense, and even if it appeared that Mr. Duke's intent was to give his estate to the Charities if he outlived his wife.  Becuause the language was clear, the court could not consider extrinsic evidence to determine Mr. Duke's testamentary intent. 

The court was not happy with its own ruling, as evidenced by this closing language:

Recognizing “that a will is to be construed according to the intention of the testator, and so as to avoid intestacy” (cites), perhaps the rule regarding the admission of extrinsic evidence should be more flexible when a testator's conduct after an event that would otherwise cause his will to be ineffective brings into question whether the written word comports with his intent. ... Perhaps it is time for our Supreme Court to consider whether there are cases where deeds speak louder than words when evaluating an individual's testamentary intent.

Wow.  They are practically begging the charities to appeal their decision, and for the California Supreme Court to reverse it.

For all you estate planners out there, let this be a lesson to you: draw a diagrm of your plan.  It will help you find holes like this one.  It is too expensive and time-consuming to rely on a ruling from the California Supreme Court to fix your error.  Assuming there is an appeal.  And the court Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeals' plea.


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