Aldrich v. Basile

Aldrich v. Basile, --- So.3d --- (Fla. 2014), 2014 WL 1250073

The issues in this case stem from an "E-Z Legal Form" executed by the decedent, which apparently neglected to include a residuary clause.  Thus, the decedent left a will which simply devised a list of specifically described property to her sister if she survived her, and if she did not, left that property to her brother.  When the sister predeceased the decedent, she left the decedent additional property which was not included in that list.  This meant that when the decedent ultimately died, she died owning property that was not listed in her will.  While she did draft a document, entitled "Just a Note," which stated that all of her "worldly possessions" should pass to her brother, this document was not properly executed and was therefore not an enforceable testamentary instrument under the Florida Probate Code.

The brother argued that he was entitled to all of the property, including the property not listed in the will, for three reasons: (1) the will only named the sister and brother as beneficiaries and disposed of all property owned by the sister at the time of the execution of the will; (2) F.S. 736.6005(2) provides that a will shall be construed to pass all property that the testator owned at death, including property acquired after the will is executed, and (3) there is a legal presumption against construction of a will that results in partial intestacy.  The decedent's intestate heirs, her nieces, argued that since the will contained no mechanism for disposing of the property acquired after the will was executed, she died intestate as to that property.

The Supreme Court of Florida reviewed the legislative history of Florida law regarding wills and after-acquired property.  It noted that originally, a will would not be effective devise real property in Florida if the testator did not have an interest in that property at the time the will was executed.  Eventually, statutes were enacted which said that a residuary clause would be effective to transfer property acquired after the execution of the will.  The current law on this issue, F.S. 732.6005, reads as follows:

(1)  The intention of the testator as expressed in the will controls the legal effect of the testator's dispositions.  The rules of construction expressed in this part shall apply unless a contrary intention is indicated by the will.
(2)  Subject to the foregoing, a will is construed to pass all property which the testator owns at death, including property acquired after the execution of the will.

The legislative history of this section reveals that it was not meant to change the existing law, and the fact that the statute no longer contained an explicit reference to residuary clauses was not meant to be a substantial change in the law.

The Court also considered how intestacy law relates to F.S. 732.6005.  F.S. 732.101(1) says that, "Any part of the estate of a decedent not effectively disposed of by will passes to the decedent's heirs as prescribed in the following sections of this code."  Since the legislature did not limit the application of the intestacy statute for estates containing after-acquired property, it appears it intended for after-acquired property to be subject to the intestacy statute in the event it is not effectively disposed of by will.

The Court ultimately found the brother's arguments about his sister's intent to be ineffective. The Court held that it could not look outside the four corners of the document since the will was not ambiguous.  The will expressed no intent as to any property that she may have acquired after the execution of her will.  It contained no residuary devise.  To distribute the after-acquired property to the brother would in effect be a reformation of the will.  Therefore, the Court held that the after-acquired property would pass by intestacy to the decedent's nieces.

Justice Pariente wrote a concurring opinion, in which she made the following observation:

I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance.  As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator's intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney's fees-- the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.


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