Common sense, and hard earned experience, tell us that clients can sign perfectly clear and unambiguous wills . . .  that are disasters waiting to happen. Why? Because even the simplest one-page will is governed by a complex body of law that appears nowhere within the four corners of the document, but can have devastating unintended consequences on even the simplest estate plan.

This body of law, known as [1] “rules of construction” (i.e., rules that apply when the will is silent, but which can be varied by the terms of the will; see Part VI of chapter 732 of Florida’s Probate Code for the rules of construction governing Florida wills) and the [2] “rules of law” (i.e., rules that cannot be modified by the terms of the will, such as Florida’s strict homestead laws [see here]), is found in Florida’s common law, Probate Code, Principal and Income Act and related accounting law, and “read into” every will signed in Florida . . .  even the $5-special you bought at Home Depot.

What can a family do when confronted by one of these time bombs? Until recently, not much. Courts had their hands tied; even if there was clear and convincing evidence that the unambiguous text of the will resulted in an outcome directly contrary to the testator’s intent, Florida common law prohibited reformation of the will to fix the mistake.

Legislative Fix:

As explained in Florida House of Representative’s Staff Analysis of CS/HB 325, Effective July 1, 2011, new F.S. § 732.615 became law. This is Florida’s version of Uniform Probate Code § 2-805, dramatically expanding the scope of judicial Will reformation actions to correct drafting mistakes.

The bill creates s. 732.615, F.S., to provide that a court may reform a will even if it is unambiguous. A person challenging the will would have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that both the testator’s intent and the terms of the will were affected by a mistake of fact or law. A court may look to extrinsic evidence in these circumstances even if the evidence contradicts the plain meaning of the will.

In the example of [Azcunce v. Estate of Azcunce, 586 So.2d 1216 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991)], the changes provided in the bill may have allowed the court to look at the extrinsic evidence regarding the deceased’s intent to not disinherit his daughter even though the will was unambiguous and the extrinsic evidence contradicted the plain meaning of the will.

The bill creates s. 732.616, F.S., to provide that any interested person may petition to modify a testator’s will in order to achieve the testator’s tax objectives, provided such modification is not contrary to the testator’s probable intent. This change would allow a party to seek modification of the will in order to achieve a tax advantage intended by the testator so long as the modification is not contrary to the testator’s probable intent.

The bill creates s. 733.1061, F.S., to provide that in the newly created actions under s. 732.615 and s. 732.616, F.S., “the court shall award taxable costs as in chancery actions, including attorneys fees and guardian ad litem fees.” A chancery action for attorneys fees and costs is an action in equity that is similar to a prevailing party provision for attorneys fees and costs, but equity does give the court discretion if the circumstances demand. The new section would give the court the ability to charge attorneys fees and costs directly to a party. The bill also gives the court the discretion to tax the fees and costs against a party’s interest in the estate or other property of the party that is not part of the estate.

For an excellent discussion of Florida’s prior common law governing will-reformation actions and how this new legislation brings us into line with modern national trends, you’ll want to read WILL REFORMATION LEGISLATION by Brian Felcoski (prepared with the assistance of Elisa F. Lucchi and Jon Scuderi). Here’s an excerpt:

Restatement Third Property §§ 12.1 and 12.2: Many states have adopted the approach in the Restatement Third which allows: (1) construction of wills where appropriate, and (2) reformation of wills for unilateral mistake by the testator (or the scrivener as the testator’s agent).

. . .

Rationale of Rest. 3d Prop. §12.1: The rationale is that admitting evidence outside the four corners of a will is inherently suspect but, possibly correct. Rest. 3d Prop. – WDT, §12.1, comment b. However, the law deals with evidence that is inherently suspect but possibly correct on one of two ways, namely: (1) to exclude evidence; or (2) to consider extrinsic evidence with safeguards to prevent against mistaken evidence through a strict burden of proof. Id.

. . .

Overview of the Uniform Probate Code §§ 2-805 and 2-806: The language in these sections of the UPC was patterned after the language in Sections 415 and 416 of the Uniform Trust code, which in turn was based on the Restatement Third of Property. As such, the rationale of the drafters of the UPC was the same as the drafters of the Restatement Third.