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Court Rejects Extrinsic Evidence in Will Construction Case – Bowler v. Benoit (In re Bruce), 161 A.D.3d 712 (N.Y. App. Div., 2018)


In this probate case the court considered the question as to whether it has the authority to consider extrinsic evidence in the determining how to interpret ambiguous terms of a last will and testament.

In her last will and testament, decedent Bruce made a provision as to the disposition of her a portion of her estate, the literal meaning of which would make the provision invalid. In her will, the decedent sought to exercise her power of appointment directing the trustees of two separate trusts, to distribute the assets in her residuary estate to the LB Foundation. A person who writes a will or creates a trust can give his or her beneficiaries a power of appointment, which enables the beneficiaries to direct where their share of the estate or trust goes at their death. In this case, a 1969 trust of which the decedent was a beneficiary gave the decedent the power to determine where her share of the trust would go upon her death. However, due to the wording of the language of the decedent’s will, the literal reading of decedent’s request is not valid because it exceeded the powers that were granted to her in the 1969 trust.

Upon considering summary judgment motions from both the petitioner and the respondent, the Surrogate’s Court noted that the testator’s intent is deciphered from a sympathetic reading of her last will and testament. Accordingly, the court must read the distribution plan that appears to be in the will in light of the testator’s intention. It is clear that the decedent’s intention was to provide property to the LB Foundation. It follows that it did not make sense for her to make a disposition of property that she knew would be invalid.

The respondents argue that the court should not consider extrinsic evidence when interpreting the terms of a will. However, the court specifically said that it would not consider any outside evidence and would need to rely only on the decedent’s intent, as set forth in the will.
Generally, the court recognizes that the intent of the decedent controls the disposition of their estate. Extrinsic evidence is usually only admissible in court to resolve a latent ambiguity. Normally for the court to ascertain the decedent’s intent, the court will look within the four corners of the will and consider all of the provisions taken together.

Extrinsic evidence is described as any evidence that is derived from any other source besides the will or trust agreement itself. Only where there is a true ambiguity will the court consider evidence from outside the four corners of the document to carry out the decedent’s intent.
The court was not persuaded by the respondent’s arguments and granted the summary judgment motion of the petitioner. The decedent’s estate would be distributed to the foundation as the will indicates was the intent of the decedent.

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