Trusts and Estates

Estate of Berger

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Cite as B321347
Filed May 25, 2023
Second District, Div. Two

By Golnaz Yazdchi
Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP

Headnote:  Wills – Ascertaining Testamentary Intent

Summary:  Extrinsic evidence is admissible to determine whether a document was intended as a will even when the terms are unambiguous.

Melanie Berger and Maria Coronado were in a romantic relationship and after six months were engaged to marry.  Coronado had three daughters from a prior marriage.  Berger had a sister, with whom she had an “off and on” relationship.  Berger arranged to have gender reassignment surgery in late August, 2002.  Before Berger’s surgery, Coronado and her daughters traveled to Spain to visit family.  While Coronado was abroad, Berger wrote a letter “to whom it may concern,” stating her testamentary wishes.  Berger signed and dated the letter, but no one witnessed Berger’s signature.  On the same day, Berger emailed Coronado and told her about the letter, and that she would leave a copy of the letter on Coronado’s desk chair (which Berger did).  Berger and Coronado continued their relationship for another six months after Berger’s surgery, but they never discussed the letter at any point thereafter.  Berger and Coronado ended their relationship in the spring of 2003, and ceased all contact thereafter.  Berger became a recluse and increasingly religious, telling neighbors that she wanted to leave her assets to the church.  Berger died in 2020, and her pastor found the letter in one of Berger’s desk drawers and informed Coronado.  Coronado petitioned for probate seeking to admit the letter as Berger’s will.  Berger’s sister opposed the petition.  The trial court denied the petition after an evidentiary hearing holding that the letter did not comply with the general requirements for a will because Coronado failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Berger intended for the letter to be her will. Coronado argued that the court erred by admitting extrinsic evidence of Berger’s intent because the letter was unambiguous.

The appellate court reversed.  If a document does not comply with the formalities of a will, a court may consider extrinsic evidence of the circumstances surrounding the document’s execution to ascertain whether the testator intended the document to constitute a will.  This is true even when the document is unambiguous because the court is assessing the meaning of the document itself, and not the meaning of the words in the document.  Although the trial court did not err in admitting extrinsic evidence, substantial evidence did not support the court’s denial of Coronado’s petition.  The words in the letter and the circumstances surrounding its creation and execution compelled the finding, as a matter of law, that Berger intended the letter to have testamentary effect and thus constituted a will.

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