IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the Vera Lyons Marital Trust Created Under
Article 4 of the Last Will and Testament
of M. Arnold
Dated October 9, 1985
In the Matter of M. Arnold
Article 4 of the Last Will and Testament
of M. Arnold
Dated October 8, 1985
In the Matter of the Vera Lyons Revocable Trust Created Under
Agreement dated May 31, 1988
Filed July 18, 2006
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded
Hennepin County District Court
File Nos. 27-TR-CV-04-125; 27-TR-CV-04-126 ;
27-TR-CV-04-127 ; 27-P9-03-001223 ; 27-P9-97-001678
Richard J. Schieffer, Anderson Dove Fretland & Van Valkenburg, P.L.L.P., 5881 Cedar Lake Road, Minneapolis, MN 55416-1492 (for appellants Andrew W. Buirge & William C. Buirge)
Christopher T. Shaheen, Peter S. Hendrixson, William J. Berens, Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P., 50 South Sixth Street, Suite 1500, Minneapolis, MN 55402-1498 (for respondent Barbara Hobbs)
Litman, Leonard, Street, and Deinard,
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Parker, Judge.*
S Y L L A B U S
Where the testamentary documents are unambiguous, there is no authority for the state courts to reform a will.
O P I N I O N
On appeal from an order reforming Vera Lyon’s will and revocable trust agreement that was based on a determination that Vera Lyons improperly exercised a special power of appointment over her deceased husband’s family trust in favor of her revocable trust, appellants argue that the district court erred by reforming the trust. Because the district court correctly held that Vera Lyon’s exercise of her special power of appointment was an invalid appointment, we affirm on that issue. But because the testamentary documents are unambiguous, the district court had no authority to reform the will, and, therefore, we reverse and remand on that issue.
This case arises out of a dispute concerning
the estates of M. Arnold
In October 1985, approximately two years prior to his
[respondent] is specifically excluded from the provisions of this will. All references in this will to “issue” of my children shall include the issue of DAVID LYONS and LISA LYONS but shall not include any issue of [respondent] except [appellants] and their issue for whom I have specifically provided in this will.
In May 1988, shortly after
trust. Vera’s exercise of her powers of appointment effectively mandated that the assets of the family trust and the marital trust be divided equally among her three children.
After Vera’s death in 2003, the trustees of the family
trust, marital trust, and Vera’s trust petitioned for an order instructing them
relating to the proper administration and distribution of the trusts and discharge
of their duties. The trustees’ petition
alleged that it was their belief that Vera’s exercise of the special power of
In response to the trustees’ petition, respondent asked the district court to reform Vera’s will and trust to correct her invalid exercise of the special power of appointment and effectuate Vera’s clear intent to benefit all three of her children equally. The trustees took no position on the reformation issue, and during an October 2004 pretrial conference, the parties agreed that the matter could be submitted to the court for a decision on the merits based upon written submissions and arguments of the parties.
On December 7, 2004, respondent filed her memorandum in
objection to the trustees’ petition. The
matter was heard before a referee who subsequently submitted his recommended
findings and order to the district court.
The district court adopted the findings and issued an order reforming
Vera’s will and Vera’s revocable trust.
The district court found that there was “clear and convincing” evidence
from Vera’s testamentary instruments that she intended to benefit all three of
her children equally. The district court
also found that Vera did not intend to exercise ineffectively her special power
of appointment, and, thus, there was also a clear mistake of law. The district court concluded that because
these two conditions had been satisfied, the court had the authority under
In response to the district court’s order, appellants filed a notice of review and a motion seeking an evidentiary hearing. The district court denied the motion. This appeal followed.
Did the district court err in reforming Vera’s testamentary documents when both the will and the trust are unambiguous?
Appellants argue that because Vera’s exercise
of her special power of appointment under the family trust was invalid, and
because all of the testamentary documents are unambiguous, the district court
erred by reforming Vera’s will and trust.
This court reviews a “district court’s construction
of an unambiguous instrument de novo.” In
re Estate and Trust of Anderson,
654 N.W.2d 682, 687 (Minn. App. 2002), review denied (
It is undisputed that Vera’s
exercise of her special power of appointment over the family trust was
invalid. Thus, we affirm the district
court’s determination on that issue. But
it is also clear that the testamentary documents are unambiguous. Historically, where a will is unambiguous,
the testator’s intent controls and the district court will attempt to
effectuate the testator’s intent without the admission of extrinsic evidence. In re
Estate of Cole, 621 N.W.2d 816, 818 (
Support for allowing courts to reform unambiguous wills comes from the following reasoning in the Restatement:
When a donative document is unambiguous, evidence suggesting that the terms of the document vary from intention is inherently suspect but possibly correct. The law deals with situations of inherently suspicious but possibly correct evidence in either of two ways. One is to exclude the evidence altogether, in effect denying a remedy in cases in which the evidence is genuine and persuasive. The other is to consider the evidence, but guard against giving effect to fraudulent or mistaken evidence by imposing [the clear and convincing] standard of proof. In choosing between exclusion and high-safeguard allowance of extrinsic evidence, this Restatement adopts the latter. Only high-safeguard allowance of extrinsic evidence achieves the primary objective of giving effect to the donor’s intention.
Restatement (Third) of Prop.: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 12.1 cmt. b. The comments to the Restatement further observe that:
This section unifies the law of wills and will substitutes by applying to wills the standards that govern other donative documents. Until recently, courts have not allowed reformation of wills. The denial of a reformation remedy for wills was predicated on observance of the Statute of Wills, which requires that wills be executed in accordance with certain formalities. Reforming a will, it was feared, would often require inserting language that was not executed in accordance with the statutory formalities. Section 11.2, however, authorizes inserting language to resolve ambiguities in accordance with the donor’s intention. As noted in § 11.2, Comment c, modern authority is moving away from insistence on strict compliance with the statutory formalities on the question of initial execution of wills.
The trend away from insisting on strict compliance with statutory formalities is based on a growing acceptance of the broader principle that mistake, whether in execution or in expression, should not be allowed to defeat intention. A common principle underlies the principle of this section, which authorizes reformation of unambiguous donative documents (including wills) to correct mistakes, and the movement (1) to excuse defective execution under § 3.3 and (2) to authorize insertion of language to resolve ambiguities in donative documents under § 11.2.
Respondent argues that the district court had authority
to reform Vera’s testamentary documents because this court has adopted the
reasoning set forth in the Restatement for reforming unambiguous donative
instruments. To support her claim, respondent cites Magnuson where the donative instrument
at issue was a deed by which the deceased father purported to leave his
residential property to his children so that the children inherited as joint
tenants rather than as tenants in common. Magnuson
v. Diekmann, 689 N.W.2d 272, 274 (
A donative document, though unambiguous, may be reformed to conform the text to the donor’s intention if it is established by clear and convincing evidence (1) that a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement, affected specific terms of the document; and (2) what the donor’s intention was. In determining whether these elements have been established by clear and convincing evidence, direct evidence of intention contradicting the plain meaning of the text as well as other evidence of intention may be considered.
D E C I S I O N
The district court correctly held that Vera’s exercise of her special power of appointment under the family trust was invalid. But where the testamentary documents are unambiguous, the district court did not have authority to reform Vera’s will and trust. Accordingly we reverse and remand for an order in accordance with the distribution proposed by the trustees in their petition.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.