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Is a Contract to Make a Will Legally Binding?

A person is free to dispose of property as he or she wishes by making a will. There are cases in which a person may enter into a written contract to make certain provisions in their will in exchange for certain considerations. For example, a father may promise to make a will leaving his house to his daughter. In exchange, the daughter agrees to move in with her father and take care of him in his final years.

Court Rejects Breach of Contract Claim Due to Late Filing

When there is an offer, acceptance, and consideration, a contract to make a will is legally binding in California. This means if the person who promises to make the will fails to do so before he or she dies, the other party may have grounds to file a breach of contract lawsuit. Under California law, such lawsuits must be filed within one year of the decedent’s death.

For instance, a California Appeals Court recently dismissed a breach of contract lawsuit brought by the ex-husband of a woman who died in 2010. The ex-husband alleged he entered into a contract to make a will with the decedent. The subject of the dispute was a home the couple purchased, while they were still married, in 1969.

The couple divorced in 1976. They continued to live together in the house. The house was legally in the decedent’s name but the ex-husband continued to “pay an equal or greater share of the mortgage,” and share in the property insurance and tax payments.

The decedent signed a will in 1999 that gave the ex-husband a life estate in the house. This meant he could continue to live in the house after the decedent passed away. The ex-husband said he “agreed to provide care” for the decedent and continue to financially support the property based on the decedent’s promise to give him a life estate.

As it turned out, the decedent had created a new will and living trust in 2005 that superseded the 1999 will and which did not contain a life estate for the ex-husband. In 2013, about three years after the decedent’s death, the trustee terminated the ex-husband’s tenancy in the house.

The ex-husband filed his breach of contract lawsuit in 2015, naming the trustee as the defendant. Unfortunately, he waited too long to act. The courts ruled his lawsuit was barred by the one-year statute of limitations.

The appeals court, in an unpublished opinion, noted the one-year deadline “shall not be tolled or extended for any reason.” That said, a plaintiff may in certain circumstances invoke a legal principle known as “equitable estoppel” to extend the deadline if the defendant intentionally misled the plaintiff about certain facts. The court said that did not help the ex-husband here, however, because at best, he learned about his ex-wife’s breach of contract when the trustee sent him the eviction notice in 2013. That meant he should have filed his lawsuit no later than 2014, which he failed to do.

Get Help Making a California Will

If you have made, or are considering, a contract regarding your will, it is a good idea to get the agreement in writing. An experienced San Diego estate planning lawyer can help. Call the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you need help with any estate planning matter.

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