California Wills & Trusts – The Decedent’s Intent Prevails as Expressed in the Instrument and Extrinsic Evidence

It is long-established California law that it is the intent of the decedent as expressed in the instrument that controls the legal effect of his or her dispositions and whether or not the terms and provisions in an alleged will or trust document are in fact valid and enforceable including the interpretation of the terms and provisions, and that as an aid to the understanding of the alleged document and to the discovery of the decedent’s intent extrinsic evidence and evidence of the surrounding circumstances are admissible. Estate of Russell (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 200, 2006; Estate of Hollingsworth (1940) 37 Cal. App. 2d 432, 435; Cal. Probate Code §21102; see also Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §1860 (for the proper construction of an instrument, the circumstances under which it was made, including the situation of the subject of the instrument, and of the parties to it, may also be shown, so that the Judge is placed in the position of those whose language he or she is to interpret); and Cal. Probate Code §6111.5 (extrinsic evidence is admissible to determine whether a document constitutes a will, or to determine the meaning of a will or a portion of a will).

“Extrinsic evidence always may be introduced initially in order to show that under the circumstances of a particular case the seemingly clear language of an instrument describing either the subject of or the object of the gift actually embodies a latent ambiguity for it is only by the introduction of extrinsic evidence that the existence of such an ambiguity can be shown. Once shown, such ambiguity may be resolved by extrinsic evidence.” Estate of Russell (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 200, 207.  Extrinsic evidence is admissible not only to resolve a latent ambiguity but also to show that a latent ambiguity exists, as by showing that more than one person met the description of beneficiary, that more than one thing met the description of what appeared as a specific devise or bequest, or that certain language in the instrument was understood and intended by the testator to have a meaning different from what on its face it appeared to have. In re Flint’s Estate (1972) 25 Cal. App. 3d 945.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco and California)


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