Monday, January 28, 2013
Ann E. Breuer (Juris Doctor candidate, Quinnipiac School of Law, May 2013) recently published her note entitled Pellegrini v. Breitenbach and courts' reluctant power to reform innocent mistakes in wills. (Pelligrini v. Breitenbach, 926 N.E.2d 544, 2012), 26 Quinnipac Prob. L.J. 46 (2012). The introduction to the article is available below.
In 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reaffirmed its adherence to the traditional “plain meaning” and “no-reformation of wills” rules in Pellegrini v. Breitenbach: the former rule bars the admission of extrinsic evidence that varies the obvious meaning of a will, while the latter rule prevents courts from correcting innocent mistakes in attested wills. This ruling resulted in burdensome tax consequences for the estate, which could have been largely avoided had the testator created a more sophisticated estate plan. In reaffirming its commitment to these rules, the court rejected more liberal standards for admission of extrinsic evidence and reformation--standards that have been applied by other jurisdictions, and supported by scholarship.
This Note will analyze a number of these alternative standards to the plain meaning and no-reformation rules, and reexamine Pellegrini in light of each. Part I discusses the court's opinion in Pellegrini, along with the factual circumstances that the court noted as significant. It will lay out the precedent on which the holding relied and the legal arguments offered by the court in explanation of its opinion. Part II discusses in detail the state of the law regarding reformation of innocent mistakes in wills and the admissibility of extrinsic evidence to demonstrate a testator's actual intent. It will review these traditional rules and the ambiguity analysis that frequently accompanies them, as well as a number of alternatives employed by modern courts. In Part III, this Note analyzes the court's holding in Pellegrini in light of each alternative rule. It ultimately concludes that, despite the more lenient standards for admissibility of extrinsic evidence, each alternate rule would not result in a different outcome for the petitioner in Pellegrini. Part IV argues that, despite the fact that the outcome in Pellegrini would be unchanged under each rule examined, the result is nevertheless unfair and unreasonable. This section proposes an alternate rule, which would allow courts to modify a mistake in an unambiguous will where the only party detrimentally affected by the reformation is a tax collecting authority. This rule provides a fairer outcome to the beneficiaries, and one that better serves the testator's demonstrable intent.