MAKE NO MISTAKEâESTATE OF DUKE ALLOWS REFORMATION OF UNAMBIGUOUS WILLS
By Jeffrey Loew, Esq.* and Steve Braccini, Esq.**
Traditionally, absent the allegation of an ambiguity requiring clarification, California courts have been reluctant to admit extrinsic evidence to interpret a will under the theory that such admission undermines the principle that the words of the testamentary instrument itself must be given the greatest deference wherever possible. But this restriction, often referred to as the "four corners" rule, has now been discarded in cases where the testator is alleged to have made a mistake in executing the document.
Indeed, on July 27, 2015, in a unanimous opinion in Estate of Irving Duke, the California Supreme Court reversed decades of precedent and held that "an unambiguous will may be reformed to conform to [a] 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 [a] testator’s actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted."1 In reaching its decision, the Court abrogated the rule established in 1965 under Estate of Barnes that prohibited courts from considering evidence outside the four corners of a will in order to correct a drafting mistake.2