A difficult part of dealing with a family member’s death is balancing your grief with having to deal with the practical considerations of administering their estate. This can lead to family conflict, especially when there is disagreement about who gets what. Although clear language in a will or testament can help avoid such disagreement, what happens when the language of the testament and related documentation are unclear about who the deceased wanted to receive specific bank accounts?
When Elizabeth Perritt died, she left a notarial testament. The testament named the executrix of her estate, bequeathed several specific items to specific people, and left the remainder of her property to three specific individuals (the “Residuary Recipients”). The testament stated she had designated beneficiaries for certain unnamed bank accounts pursuant to the “payable on death” provisions of La. R.S. 6:314.
The Residuary Recipients and Carroll Toms all argued they were entitled to the deposit accounts. Peritt’s executrix filed a motion to determine who was entitled to two of Perritt’s deposit accounts held at Home Federal Bank. The trial court held the Residuary Recipients were entitled to split the deposit accounts. Toms filed an appeal.
La. C.C. art. 1611 governs how to interpret wills in Louisiana. It states the testator’s intent controls and the clear language of the testator governs. A will cannot be made by referencing a document that itself is not a will. Extrinsic evidence can only be considered to resolve ambiguities within a will. See Succession of Toney.
There was no evidence Perritt had completed the required affidavits that would have transferred the at-issue deposit accounts to Toms as her payable-on-death beneficiary. The appellate court noted the at-issue provisions in Perritt’s testament did not sufficiently indicate her intent.
However, the extrinsic bank documentation Toms provided did little to illustrate Perritt’s intent. Specifically, it was unclear whether Perritt or someone else had been the one to designate Toms as the beneficiary. A manager at the bank where the at-issue accounts were held testified Perritt had not completed the required documents for the at-issue accounts, even though the bank had sent Perritt the documentation for those accounts along with the documentation required for other accounts, which Perritt had completed and returned to the bank.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment that the Residuary Recipients were entitled to the at-issue bank accounts. The court explained it could not determine the substance of Perritt’s wishes without referring to another document, but the bank documentation itself also did not make clear her intents.
A good attorney can advise you on steps you can take to simplify estate planning and avoid situations like what occurred here where there is confusion about who you wanted to receive a specific item. Or, if you find yourself administering a loved one’s estate and dealing with issues about who is entitled to what, a good attorney can advise you on the best path forward, including advising on when it is appropriate to consider extrinsic evidence about the deceased’s intent.
Additional Sources: Succession of Elizabeth Jeane Toms Perritt
Article Written By Berniard Law Firm
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