WHO “WILL” GET YOUR ASSETS?
Estate of Duke, filed July 27, 2015
If you don’t properly document your wishes, your assets may be part of a long and expensive court battle after you die over unjustified claims of “mistake.”
In an historic ruling, the California Supreme Court reversed the rule on what evidence can be used to determine the meaning of an unambiguous Will. Rather than only looking at the document itself, in some circumstances the Court will consider all evidence that proves the decedent’s true intention. Which could translate into litigation over your true intention, unless you plan your estate properly.
Irving Duke wanted his assets to go to his wife, but if he and his wife died at the same time, he wanted his assets going to various charitable organizations. He handwrote a will, stating his intention. He never specified what he wanted if he died AFTER his wife died, which is exactly what happened.
After Mr. Duke died, his nephews filed a claim saying that they were the rightful heirs despite the Will. The lower court agreed with the nephews. The charities were out of luck because the Will, leaving the assets to charity, only applied if Mr. Duke and his wife died simultaneously. Since that didn’t happen, the nephews were entitled to his assets as his heirs. The court did not consider any evidence about Mr. Duke’s estranged family relationships.
However, changing 50 years of established law, the California Supreme Court ruled that such evidence may be considered in determining the effect of Mr. Duke’s Will. The High Court held that extrinsic evidence, meaning facts not found within the estate planning document, may be introduced to change the effect of a Will if clear and convincing evidence establishes a mistake and shows the decedent’s true intent.
“Will” your named beneficiaries get your assets, or will a judge determine the fate of your assets? A carefully drafted written estate plan is the key. If you omit something, like Mr. Duke’s omission about whether the charities should get his assets if his wife died before he died, the court may decide whether to override your stated desires. Properly document your wishes to avoid a long and expensive court battle about your true intentions.
If you want to properly plan your estate, you’ll find what you need to know in my new book, Create Your Best Legacy, available in hard copy and kindle version: Click here to purchase now.
A published author and guest on radio and TV, attorney Michelle C. Lerman is certified by the California Board of Legal Specialization of the State Bar of California as a Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law. She has been included in the Northern California list of “Super Lawyers” for 2009 and 2010. She specializes in custom legacy plans for the unique needs of families with children. Practicing law for over 30 years, she has published numerous articles on estate planning for families.
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