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New Ruling on Wills in California: What It Means for Estate Law

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The California Supreme Court issued a new ruling on wills this week, and it's set to change certain aspects of probate and estate law. By a 7-0 unanimous decision, the Court ruled that errors in a testator's will can remedied according to evidence of the deceased individual's intentions.

In the case that prompted the decision, a widower left behind a multimillion-dollar estate without a clear designation of who would inherit the fortune. Irving Duke, a Los Angeles County resident who died in 2007, passed away with a will that was composed in 1984, when he was still married. In the event he and his wife died at the same time, Duke planned for his property and funds to be entrusted to two charities (He left $1 to his brother and disinherited everyone else).

Life, as we know, doesn't always go according to our plans. Duke's wife ended up dying in 2002, and he never changed the will before he himself died five years later. A judge at the county superior court level, as well an appeals court, said that absent any specification within the will, Duke's assets would be distributed to his closest living relatives, his two nephews.

Once the Duke case made it to the California Supreme Court, however, a new precedent on judicial scope for interpreting contested wills was about to be set. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye stated that the inability to revise a faulty or incomplete will to reflect a testator's original intent could "unjustly enrich those who would inherit as a result of a mistake." Judge Cantil-Sakauye effectively reversed a previous 1965 ruling upholding the position that a will's written provisions were binding independent of intent.

So what does the Court's new ruling on wills mean for potential estate disputes? Although the decision seems to upend hundreds of years of judicial precendent (going back to the times of Henry VIII, no less), it's important to take into account that wills remain the basic tool of estate law in California. Now, however, if a document contains errors or omissions, we have the ability to right the wrong with evidence of the deceased's intent. And that's a positive step for protecting intended beneficiaries in the event of litigation.

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