The usual California rule is that, if a will appears to be unambiguous as written, no evidence outside the document (“extrinsic evidence”) can be used to change its terms. In Estate of Duke (2015) 61 Cal. 4th 871 [190 Cal. Rptr. 3d 295, 353 P.3d 863], the California Supreme Court created a narrow exception to this rule.
The decedent in the case had written his own will, providing that, on his death: (1) His wife would inherit his estate if she survived him; but (2) if his wife died at the same time, certain charities would take his estate. He did not state would should happen if his wife died first. As it turns out, his wife did die first. Following his later death, the charities contended in probate court that evidence outside the will showed that the decedent intended them to take if his wife was not still alive when he died.
The trial court, applying the rule that extrinsic evidence cannot be used to vary the terms of an unambiguous will, found that the will unambiguously failed to provide for the circumstance of his wife predeceasing the decedent and therefore ordered his estate to pass to his heirs (as if he had no will) regardless of any extrinsic evidence that showed the decedent intended otherwise. The Court of Appeal, based on prior California cases, agreed even though it believed that it was unlikely that the decedent intended to benefit the charities only if his wife died at the exact same time he did as opposed to her dying at any time before he did.
The California Supreme Court concluded that “the categorical bar on reformation of wills is not justified.” It then created a narrow exception to this usual rule by holding that, if there is clear and convincing evidence that a will mistakenly expresses the decedent’s intent at the time the will was drafted and there is clear and convincing evidence as to what the decedent actually intended at the time the will was drafted, a court may reform a will to reflect that intent even if the will itself otherwise seems to be unambiguous. The case was sent back to the trial court to decide if the extrinsic evidence offered by the charities met this new exception.