Basile v. Aldrich, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 3696309 (Fla. 1st DCA August 23, 2011)

DIY estate planning = form will with no residuary clause = partial intestacy.

At one time—under the Florida statute of wills of 1828, in force until the Revised Statutes took effect on June 13, 1892—a will was ineffective to devise Florida real estate that the testator had no interest in at the time the will was executed. Since June 13, 1892, however, a will containing a residuary clause has been effective to transfer after-acquired property. This rule is currently codified in F.S. 732.6005(2). Here’s what the statute says; I’ve italicized the crucial text at the heart of the linked-to case above.

732.6005Rules of construction and intention.—

(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.

Based on this statute the trial court in the linked-to case above ruled that a will devising certain specifically identified property to certain specifically named beneficiaries — but containing no residuary clause — resulted in the specific devisees taking everything. Wrong answer, says the 1st DCA.

The problem – a Will with NO residuary clause.

A residuary estate, in the law of wills, is any portion of the testator’s estate that is not specifically devised to someone in the will, or any property that is part of such a specific devise that fails. It is also known as a residual estate or simply residue. The will may identify the taker of the residuary estate through a residuary clause or residuary bequest. The person identified in such a clause is called the residuary taker, residuary beneficiary, or residuary legatee. If no such clause is present, however, the residuary estate will pass to the testator’s heirs by intestacy. That’s what happened in this case.

Here’s how the 1st DCA described the will at issue in this case:

On April 5, 2004, Ms. Aldrich wrote her will on an “E–Z Legal Form.” In Article III, entitled “Bequests,” just after the form’s pre-printed language “direct[ing] that after payment of all my just debts, my property be bequeathed in the manner following,” she hand wrote instructions directing that all of the following “possessions listed” go to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton:

—House, contents, lot at 150 SW Garden Street, Keystone Heights FL 32656

—Fidelity Rollover IRA 162–583405 (800–544–6565)

—United Defense Life Insurance (800–247–2196)

—Automobile Chevy Tracker, 2CNBE 13c916952909

—All bank accounts at M & S Bank 2226448, 264679, 0900020314 (352–473–7275).

Ann also wrote: “If Mary Jane Eaton dies before I do, I leave all listed to James Michael Aldrich, 2250 S. Palmetto 114 S Daytona FL 32119.” Containing no other distributive provisions, the will was duly signed and witnessed.

Three years later, Ms. Eaton did die before Ann, becoming her benefactor instead of her beneficiary. Ms. Eaton left cash and land in Putnam County to Ms. Aldrich, who deposited the cash she inherited from Ms. Eaton in an account she opened for the purpose with Fidelity Investments. On October 9, 2009, Ann Dunn Aldrich herself passed away, never having revised her will to dispose of the inheritance she had received from her sister.

NO residuary clause = intestacy.

Whenever possible, courts will construe wills in a way that disposes of all of the testator’s estate and avoids intestacy. The Florida Probate Code section that’s supposed to make this all happen is F.S. 732.6005. When in doubt, this statute authorizes a court to interpret or “construe” an ambiguous will in a way that avoids intestacy. But if the will simply doesn’t say what to do with the testator’s residuary estate, the result is partial intestacy; F.S. 732.6005 does NOT authorize a court to fill a blank slate with its best guess as to what the decedent would have wanted. The trial court in this case failed to grasp that distinction. Wrong answer, says the 1st DCA. Here’s why:

We hold that, where a will fails to dispose of all of a decedent’s property (Ann’s will has no residuary clause), “partial intestacy” results; and that property Ann owned at the time of her death not disposed of by her will passes to her heirs, in the manner prescribed by sections 732.101–.111, Florida Statutes (2009). Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

*****

Only subsection (1) of section 732.6005 applies to the dispute here: If discernible from the will, the testator’s intent must be given effect, unless doing so would be illegal or otherwise contrary to public policy. . . . Subsection (2) of section 732.6005 does not apply because it is expressly “[s]ubject to” subsection (1), which provides: “The intention of the testator as expressed in the will controls the legal effect of the testator’s dispositions.” § 732.6005(1), Fla. Stat. (2009). The language of Ann’s will is unambiguous and its intent is clear.

Ms. Aldrich devised her house and lot in Keystone Heights, and bequeathed its contents, together with other personal property that the will identifies with painstaking specificity. Her will plainly evinces an intent to dispose of each particular item of property the will names. Equally plainly, the will manifests no intent to dispose of [her residuary estate], property the will does not allude to in any way.

*****

Synecdoche is a rhetorical device, not a judicial doctrine. “[I]f a will disposes of only one small specific item out of a large and valuable estate, it would be absurd to hold that the devisee of that one small item is entitled to the remainder of the estate.” Matter of Estate of Allen, 150 Mich.App. 413, 388 N.W.2d 705, 707 (1986). The same logic applies in the present case.

*****

A testator may choose to dispose of only a portion of his or her estate by will, allowing the balance to descend under the laws of intestate succession. . . . While the will does not dispose of all the property Ann Dunn Aldrich owned at her death, this circumstance is hardly unique to her or her estate and does not contravene any rule of law or public policy. Nor does the will reflect any mistake on her part.

*****

Section 732.6005(2) is, after all, a rule of construction. Rules of construction are to be resorted to only if the testator’s intent cannot be ascertained from the will itself.  . . . The presumption against partial intestacy is designed to resolve ambiguities where they exist. The presumption should not be applied to create ambiguities in a will where none would otherwise exist.