California Supreme Court Rules that Wills May be Amended After Death

On Monday, July 27, the California Supreme Court ruled that a will may be reformed after one’s death if there is clear and convincing extrinsic evidence that the will does not accurately reflect the testator’s wishes and what the wishes were at the time the will was drafted. Historically, such evidence was considered inadmissible to change an unambiguous will.

  • The testator, Irving Duke, wrote in his 1984 will that his estate, valued at more than $5 million, go to his wife if he predeceased her. It set forth that if he and his wife were to “die at the same moment”, the entire estate would be split between two charities. The will did not provide for what would happen in the event that he survived his wife, which is what happened.Applying 50 years of precedent, the trial and appellate court found that the will unambiguously created an intestacy and the estate was to be distributed to Irving Duke’s heirs at law. The charities, however, disputed this conclusion and appealed to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the California Supreme Court overturned established precedent as to whether evidence of mistake can be admitted to challenge a will clear on its face.Margaret Lodise of Sacks, Glazier, Franklin & Lodise and Mary-Christine Sungaila of Haynes and Boone represented several of the heirs in the matter. The case will now go back to the trial court where Ms. Lodise will represent the family members in applying the newly created law to the facts of this case.Ms. Lodise stated that, “Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse a long-standing precedent, we believe the facts of this case are unlikely to support actual reformation of this will at the trial court level.”The case is Estate of Duke, 2015 S.O.S. 3800.