Chin v. Estate of Chin, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2382326 (Fla. 3d DCA Aug 05, 2009)

Will construction litigation is supposed to be all about figuring out what the dry words on a piece of paper called a “will” are supposed to mean. We can’t ask the testator what the words mean, he’s dead. So “we” (i.e., lawyers sitting as judges or representing clients) do what we’ve been trained to do: we rely on a body of law that sets up a series of analytical tools and evidentiary presumptions aimed at hopefully delivering the most just result possible for all concerned. Florida’s rich body of law governing all aspects of how testamentary documents are supposed to be construed is a frequent topic of discussion on this blog [click here, here, here, here, here].

But by focusing too much on the “law” can we end up missing the forest for the trees?

Will Construction Litigation as Morality Play:

The lesson to draw from the linked-to case is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that no matter what the law may say, at the end of the day we’re all human, which means we’re all swayed by an inherent sense of justice and fair play. The result that seems most “just” and “fair” always has a better chance of persuading the one-person jury that decides every Florida probate case: your probate judge; this is true no matter what the law may say is the correct doctrinal result. Here’s how this point was made in an ABA Journal piece entitled When the Judge Is the Jury:

“The first lawyer to make the facts come alive in a bench trial has a tremendous advantage. .  .  .

“You are talking directly to a fellow human being about the ‘gut stuff’ of life. What’s right and what’s wrong. Fair and unfair. Just and unjust. This is all about the power of a story to grab the heart of a fellow human—not something that is going to be measured for its adequacy by a professor who is checking to see if you found all the possible legal theories in the case. You already did that weeks ago with your pleadings.

“Remember, the power of persuasion lies in creating a sense of injustice. Judges—like juries—want to right wrongs. If you represent the plaintiff, show—don’t tell—your jury how the defendant hurt the plaintiff. And if you represent the defendant, your point is, it’s wrong for him to pay for what he didn’t do.

“Facts—not arguments, legal conclusions or academic pedantry—are what have the power to persuade.”

With this (long!) introduction in mind, read how the 3d DCA summarized the key facts of the linked-to case and the rationale underlying its ruling.

On April 12, 1989, Adolph Chin drafted a Will in Jamaica. When he died in 1997, he co-owned property in Miami-Dade County as tenants in common with his sister, Mary Chin. Adolph and Mary both lived on this property. David Chin, Adolph’s son, was named personal representative of Adolph’s estate. . . .

Paragraph seven of the Will states:

I direct that property held by me in co-ownership with my brother the said Earl Anthony Chin and with my sister, Mary Victoria Chin, shall not be sold as long as my said brother or sister desires to occupy same.

David Chin argues that paragraph seven only applies to property which was co-owned by Adolph, Earl, and Mary concurrently. Mary argues that Adolph devised a life estate to each sibling with whom he co-owned property. If a court finds the language of a will ambiguous, “[t]he Testator’s intent is the guiding and dominating factor in the construction of a Will.” See In re Roger’s Estate, 180 So.2d 167, 170 (1965). When interpreting ambiguous provisions of a will, courts may look upon the situation of the parties, such as ties and affection between the testator and his or her legatees. Id.

On de novo review, we agree with the trial court’s finding that paragraph seven grants a life estate to Mary Chin. Adolph shared a separate residence with each sibling. The trial court found this to be strong evidence that he did not have the intent to dispossess his siblings of their homes after his death. Additionally, to construe paragraph seven to apply only if there were co-ownership of property by all three individuals asks the Court to adopt the notion that Adolph Chin inserted a restriction into his Will with full knowledge that it had no meaning. This Court simply cannot adopt this explanation.

Thus, we agree with the lower court that Mary Chin has a life estate in the property and we affirm the lower court’s Amended Order of Summary Administration.