On November 4th, 2019, the Court of Appeals, Division I for the State of Washington overturned a trial court’s decision in a dispute over an allegedly ambiguous will.

The case—In re Matter of the Estate of Earl M. Holmes—involved a Washington man named Earl Holmes whose will disinherited his relatives.

Mr. Holmes Disinherited Relatives—But Failed to Identify Heirs

One important issue in this case was not in dispute: Earl Holmes explicitly disinherited his close relatives from his estate. That being said, he did not identify any beneficiaries in his will. The Selfs, a married couple who were friends of Mr. Holmes, stepped forward to claim that he intended to leave his entire estate to them.

Other people, claiming to be more distant relatives of Mr. Holmes argued that they should get the property under Washington’s intestacy laws. Intestacy is term used to describe the estate of a person who passed away without a valid will. Without valid heirs, they argue, the will was not legitimate.

A Trial Court Improperly Relied on Extrinsic Evidence

In reviewing the probate matter, a Washington trial court concluded that the will was fundamentally ambiguous. As such, the trial court allowed extrinsic evidence to be admitted into the proceedings. Extrinsic evidence is a legal term that is used to refer to evidence outside of a document. In general, this type of evidence is inadmissible—however, extrinsic evidence can be used to resolve an inherent ambiguity.

In this case, the extrinsic evidence was a letter that was purportedly drafted by the attorney who helped to write the will of Mr. Holmes.

That letter stated the decedent’s intention to leave his property to the Selfs. After hearing the arguments, a Washington appeals ruled that Mr. Holmes’ will was not actually ambiguous. As such, the use of extrinsic evidence was improper. The appeals court remanded the proceedings back to the trial court in order to determine if sufficient admissible evidence exists to allow for the will to be reformed or if Mr. Holmes must be ruled to have died intestate.

Probate Litigation in Washington: Extrinsic Evidence Cannot Be Used to Import Intention

The key takeaway in this case is that the Washington courts are reluctant to use extrinsic evidence to resolve probate disputes. As explained by Renton estate planning attorney Dan Kellogg, “Under Washington law, extrinsic evidence can only be used to resolve an ambiguity that exists in the document. It cannot be used to import intention into a will that is not actually expressed within it.”