August 22, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Statute Permitting Will Reformation Based on Extrinsic Evidence of Intent Is Not Rule of Construction

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Estate of Ramstetter on Thursday, May 19, 2016.

Probate—Extrinsic Evidence—Mutual Mistake.

Louise Ramstetter devised her ranch to her daughters, Jeanne, Marie, and Karol, “in equal shares to be held as joint tenants.” Louise died in 2009 and Marie and Karol, as personal representatives, began administering the estate. Three years later, Jeanne petitioned to remove Marie and Karol as personal representatives and for a declaratory judgment that she had severed the joint tenancy among the sisters, creating a tenancy in common as to her one-third of the ranch by deeding her interest to a trust she had created. Marie and Karol cross-petitioned to enforce a 2012 Agreement and Release in which they had agreed to convey 35 acres of the ranch to Jeanne and she had agreed to convey the remainder of the ranch to them, with all other claims being released. They also sought reformation of the will based on the failure of the attorney who drafted the will to have implemented Louise’s intent to keep ownership of the ranch within the family.

The trial court granted Jeanne’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding the will unambiguous. It accepted the parties’ position that application of CRS § 15-11-806, which allows a court to reform an unambiguous instrument “to conform the terms to the transferor’s intention” based on clear and convincing evidence that the “transferor’s intent and the terms of the governing instrument were affected by a mistake of fact or law,” was determined by CRS § 15-17-101(2), but concluded that CRS § 15-17-101(2) did not make CRS § 15-11-806 applicable because Louise had died before the latter section became effective. Moreover, it found that the reformation claim depended wholly on extrinsic evidence of Louise’s intent, and therefore dismissed it. The court found that the Agreement and Release was “invalid as a result of mutual mistake among the parties to it” and that Jeanne had severed the joint tenancy by the conveyance to her trust.

On appeal, Karol and Marie first argued that the trial court improperly dismissed their claim for reformation of Louise’s will. CRS § 15-11-806 amended the probate code to allow reformation of an unambiguous instrument. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that CRS § 15-11-806 cannot be applied retroactively in this case, but on different grounds: The Court found that CRS § 15-17-101(2)(b), which would allow retroactive application of CRS § 15-11-806, does not apply here because CRS § 15-17-101(2)(a) applies only to governing instruments and therefore controls over the more general subsection (2)(b) and does not provide a basis for retroactively applying CRS § 15-11-806. Also, CRS § 15-17-101(2)(e) does not allow retroactive application of CRS § 15-11-806 because CRS § 15-11-806 is not a rule of construction and therefore 2(e) doesn’t apply. Because CRS § 15-17-101(2)(a) and (b) do not permit retroactive application, the trial court properly precluded Karol and Marie from attempting to reform Louise’s will using extrinsic evidence of her intent under CRS §15-11-806. Karol and Marie also argued that the court improperly invoked stare decisis when dismissing their reformation claim. Because the terms of the will were unambiguous, the court properly did not admit extrinsic evidence to establish a contrary intent to that expressed in her will.

Karol and Marie then argued that the trial court misapplied the mutual mistake doctrine and erred in declining to enforce the Agreement and Release because all the sisters were mutually mistaken that only a contract among them could sever the joint tenancy. The Court reviewed the trial court decision for clear error and found sufficient support in the record to uphold its conclusion that all three sisters held the same mistaken belief. The Court also rejected Karol and Marie’s arguments that other findings of the trial court were irreconcilably inconsistent with the finding of mutual mistake.

The orders dismissing the reformation claim and voiding the Agreement and Release for mutual mistake were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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