Reformation of a will in California is permitted, even if the will is unambiguous, if there is a clear expression of decedent’s intent supporting reformation at the time the will was drafted. The California Supreme Court, in the 2015 case of Estate of Duke, held that:
[A]n 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.
The Estate of Duke changed the law in California regarding reformation of a will. Prior to Estate of Duke, the law was that if a will was unambiguous, extrinsic evidence (evidence other than the will itself) could not be introduced to reform the will. Extrinsic evidence was only permitted if the terms of a will were ambiguous, and extrinsic evidence was needed to clarify the ambiguity.
Extrinsic Evidence Of Decedent’s Intent Permitted to Reform An Unambiguous Will In California
In Estate of Duke, the California Supreme Court considered the issue of whether the “four corners” rule (prohibiting evidence outside of the four corners of the will) should be reconsidered in order to permit drafting errors in a will to be reformed consistent with clear and convincing evidence of the decedent’s intent.
Facts of the Case
The facts of the case are straightforward:
Irving Duke prepared a holographic will leaving everything to his wife (except for $1 to his brother). The will provided that if Duke and his wife died at the same time, specific charities would inherit the estate.
The will, however, contained no provision for who would inherit the estate if Duke’s wife died before him.
Duke’s wife passed away five years before Duke did, but Duke never updated his will. Duke was not survived by a spouse or children.
The Probate Litigation
After Duke’s passing, probate litigation ensued. The charities named in the will argued that Duke intended for the charities to inherit the estate if Duke’s wife predeceased Duke. Decedent’s intent was inartfully expressed in his will, and thus there was a mistake in the will that should be reformed to reflect the Decedent’s intent when the will was drafted.
Duke’s intestate heirs argued that Duke’s will was unambiguous, and failed to provide for what would happen if Duke’s wife predeceased him. The California appellate court agreed with the heirs at law, finding that the will was unambiguous and could not be reformed to provide for the charities.
The California Supreme Court Decision
The California Supreme Court overturned the decision, holding 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.”
In support of the reversal, the California Supreme Court made the following points:
- The alleged mistake concerns Decedent’s actual intent at the time Decedent wrote the will.
- The alleged mistake and intent are sufficiently specific.
- Evidence of decedent’s intent must be clear and convincing.
The Estate of Duke case was one particularly well-suited to changing the law regarding reformation of a will in California. This is because it was unlikely that when Duke drafted his will that he only wished to address the distribution of his property if he died before his wife or they died at the same time. What was much more likely is that Duke wanted to address the disposition of his assets upon his death, whether he predeceased his wife or not.