Beverly Hills Bar Association Program – Wills, Evidence and Henry VIII: A Discussion of Estate of Duke

Firm partner, Yasha Bronshteyn, attended A Discussion of Estate of Duke which was presented on January 19, 2016, at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills, by the Beverly Hills Bar Association-Trust & Wills Section.   

The presentation focused and discussed an unanimous decision, In re the Estate of Duke-the recent California Supreme Court case which held that extrinsic evidence can be used to reform a Will which contains no ambiguity. This probate case will have an important impact on the practice of probate law in California.

The California Supreme Court decision in the case on wills granted review to reconsider the historical rule that extrinsic evidence is inadmissible to reform an unambiguous will. The Supreme Court has concluded that the categorical bar on reformation of wills (dating back to common law and codified in statute by the enactment of the California Probate Code’s various legal requirements) is not justified.  The Supreme Court holds 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.

In 1984, when Irving Duke was 72 years of age, he prepared a holographic will in which he left all of his property to “my beloved wife, Mrs. Beatrice Schecter Duke,” who was then 58 years of age. He left to his brother, Harry Duke, “the sum of One dollar.” He provided that “[s]hould my wife . . . and I die at the same moment, my estate is to be equally divided — [¶] One-half is to be donated to the City of Hope in the name and loving memory of my sister, Mrs. Rose Duke Radin. [¶] One-half is to be donated to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel in the names and loving memory of my mother and father — [¶] Bessie and Isaac Duke.”

Irving died in November 2007, leaving no spouse or children.  In February 2008, a deputy public administrator for the County of Los Angeles obtained the will from Irving’ s safe deposit box.  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. The handwritten will, however, contained no provision addressing the disposition of his estate if, as occurred here, he lived longer than his wife. The specified charities contend that at the time the testator wrote his will, he specifically intended to provide in his will that the charities would inherit his estate in the event his wife was not alive when he died.  The battle concerned in excess of five million dollars as Mr. Duke had significant stock holdings.

Here the California Supreme Court held 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.

Our firm also handles disputes over the decedent’s intent. For example, when a person dies, they might have named only some, but not all of his or her children in a will. Most likely, the unnamed children would contest the validity of the will, and estate litigation may ensue to determine whether the decedent intended to omit certain children or whether the omission was unintentional. This is but one example of a dispute that can arise in the execution of an estate plan. If you or someone you know is dealing with a dispute over the administration or execution of trust or estate in California, you should contact an experienced trusts and estates litigation attorney to ensure your interests are represented.  Attorney Bronshteyn also serves on the probate volunteer panel of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and has represented executors, administrators, trustees, conservators, and conservatees, in court proceedings.

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