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Making Your Intentions Clear in a Will

A successful estate plan makes the final distribution of a person’s property plain and clear. Ambiguity in a will or trust may lead to costly litigation over conflicting interpretations of a person’s intent. But even the best executed estate plan may still leave some unhappy heirs, as one recent California Court of Appeals decision illustrates.

The Case of the Lanfermans

The deceased in this case was Paul Lanferman, who died in 2011. Lanferman and his wife, Susan Lanferman, executed an estate plan nearly two decades earlier. The Lanfermans had a total of six children, all from prior marriages. The Lanfermans executed identical wills. As applicable here, Paul Lanferman’s will said upon his death that his one-half interest in any community property would go to his wife. The will attached no conditions to the gift, aside from an instruction to the executor, which stated that the couple’s home could not be sold during Susan Lanferman’s lifetime without her consent.

In addition to his will, Paul Lanferman executed a separate contract with his wife affirming their intention that upon both of their deaths, their community property would be divided equally among all six children. Susan Lanferman’s will contains language to that effect. Finally, in 1989, the couple signed an amendment to this contract, clarifying that upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse would have “a complete and unrestricted right” to use or sell any of the community property.

After Paul Lanferman’s death, Susan Lanferman filed a spousal property petition with the probate court. This is an abbreviated form of probate permitted under California law when a spouse is the sole or primary heir to a deceased spouse’s estate. Lanferman’s son and executor, David Lanferman, objected to the petition, arguing the contract and its amendment created an ambiguity in the will, and that his father actually intended to grant Susan Lanferman a life estate in his share of the community property, rather than a bequest. A life estate would impose restrictions on Susan Lanferman’s ability to sell any of her husband’s share, whereas an outright bequest is unrestricted.

The probate court rejected the son’s argument, and the Court of Appeals agreed. As the Court of Appeals explained, there was no ambiguity in the wording of the will, and the contract and amendment were not relevant to the probate court’s analysis. Such “extrinsic documents” may only be considered if there is, in fact, ambiguity in the will itself. But here there was none. Paul Lanferman clearly intended to leave his community property to his wife outright, not as part of a life estate.

Always Be Clear

This case is simply an illustration and not a complete statement of California law. But it does show how drafting a clear, unambiguous will can minimize the time and expense of potential litigation. If you are looking to prepare your own will, it is important to work with an experienced California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.

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