Law Quadrangle (formerly Law Quad Notes)


Although it has been axiomatic that our courts do not entertain suits to reform wills on the ground of mistake, appellate courts in New York, Michigan, New Jersey, and California have decided cases within the last several years that may presage the abandonment of the ancient "no-reformation" rule. (In re Snide, 52 N.Y.2d 193, 418 N.E.2d 656, 437 N.Y.S.2d 63 (1981); Estate of Kremlick, 331 N.W.2d 228 (Mich. 1983); Engle v. Siegel, 74 N.J. 287, 377 A.2d 892 (1977); and Estate of Taff, 63 Cal. App. 3d 319, 133 Cal.Rptr. 737 (1976).)

The new cases do not purport to make this fundamental doctrinal change, although the New York court did announce an explicit exception to the noreformation rule and the other three courts did disclaim a related rule, sometimes called the "plain meaning" rule. That rule, which we will be calling the "no-extrinsic-evidence rule," prescribes that courts not receive evidence about the testator's intent apart from, or in opposition to, the legal effect of the language he uses in the will itself. The three courts said that they were consulting extrinsic evidence (in the California and New Jersey cases, primarily the testimony of the lawyers whose poor draftsmanship had led to the litigation) in order to engage in "construction" of supposedly ambiguous instruments.

In this article, which both summarizes and updates an extensively footnoted article published last year ("Reformation of Wills on the Ground of Mistake: Change of Direction in American Law?" 130 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 521 (1982)), we report on this new case law and discuss the analytic framework that we think it suggests and requires.