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The California Supreme Court is set to decide whether deeds speak louder than words when it comes to testator intent.
This week, the state’s highest court voted to review an intestacy ruling to decide whether a decedent’s clear intent in his holographic will should overcome shortcomings in the language of the document.
We gather from Irving Duke's holographic will that he wasn't crazy about his siblings. In 1984, Duke prepared an holographic will, in which he left all of his property to his wife, with the exception of "the sum of One dollar ($1.00) and no more" to his brother. If Duke and his wife were to "die at the same moment," he wanted his estate is to be equally divided equally, with one-half donated to the City of Hope in the name of his sister, and the other half given to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel in the names of his parents.
Duke indicated he had intentionally omitted "all other persons, whether heirs or otherwise, not specifically mentioned, and specifically disinherited all persons claiming to be his heirs."
But he didn't indicate how he wanted his estate handled if his wife pre-deceased him.
Common sense indicates that if his wife didn't survive him, Duke wanted his estate to be split between the charities. Common sense doesn't always prevail.
After Duke's death, a Los Angeles deputy public administrator admitted Duke's will to probate. Duke's sister's sons, Seymour and Robert Radin, decided they wanted a piece of Duke's $5 million pie. They filed a petition for determination of entitlement to estate distribution, claiming that they should inherit the state through intestacy laws because the circumstances detailed in Duke's holographic will never came to pass.
The charities designated in Duke's will fought the motion, arguing that the trial court should consider extrinsic evidence of Irving's testamentary intent, including a statement Duke made to a City of Hope representative that he was "leaving his estate to City of Hope and to Jewish National Fund," reports the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.
The trial court concluded that the will was not ambiguous, so extrinsic evidence was inadmissible. The court awarded the estate to the Radins, and the appellate court affirmed that decision.
A Supreme Court reversal in this case would allow the courts to give greater weight to testator intent. Regardless of the outcome, the case will provide a compelling argument for hiring an attorney to draft a will. While holographic wills are legal and enforceable, oversights like those in Duke's will can typically be avoided by enlisting professional assistance.