Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Iraline G. Barnes, Trial Judge
Newman, Belson and Farrell, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Newman
This is an appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court construing a will. The problem at issue is that the will's sixth paragraph states that the residual estate is to pass to the person specified in the eighth paragraph of the will, but the eighth paragraph does not name a residual legatee. Appellant explains that the inconsistency is a result of an error on the part of the attorney who drafted the will: that although the testator allegedly instructed the attorney to name appellant as the beneficiary of the residual estate, the attorney forgot to insert such a clause in the will. Appellant argued in the construction proceeding in Superior Court that, based upon extrinsic evidence showing that the testator intended the appellant to be the beneficiary of the residual estate, the court should interpret the will to give Appellant the residual estate. The trial court held that it was without power to reform the will by inserting the name of a legatee alleged to have been omitted by mistake. As a consequence, the residue would go to the District of Columbia by escheat. See D.C. Code § 19-701 (1981). We agree with the Superior Court's ruling and, thus, we affirm.
The facts of this case show that the testator, a District of Columbia resident, executed a will from his hospital bed in March 1986 and died approximately one month thereafter. Paragraph Six of the will states:
I direct my Executor to sell or otherwise convert into cash such of the rest and remainder of my estate as, in his judgment, is or may be necessary to pay my just debts, expenses of administration, funeral expenses, expenses of last illness, estate and inheritance (and other) taxes, and the cash legacies specified in subparagraphs A through G, inclusive, of paragraph SEVENTH hereof. I request that the remaining assets of my estate that are not required to be sold in order to pay debts, expenses, taxes, and cash legacies as provided in the preceding sentence be retained in kind by said Executor and distributed in kind to the residual legatee as stipulated in paragraph EIGHTH hereof.
Paragraph eighth of the will states, in pertinent part:
I hereby nominate and appoint RICHARD L. KNUPP, . . ., as Executor of this my last will and testament, and I direct that no bond or security be required of him. I ask that he retain MILTON W. SCHOBER, . . ., as attorney for my estate.
Nowhere does paragraph eighth name a residual beneficiary.
The will was drafted by Milton W. Schober, the attorney referred to in the eighth paragraph of the will and the drafter of the testator's two prior wills. In his two prior wills, the testator left significant bequests to his personal friend, Richard L. Knupp ("Knupp"). Appellant alleges that in this will testator also intended Knupp to benefit. Allegedly, approximately one month prior to his death, the testator told Schober to draft a new will which would leave specific dollar amounts to several named beneficiaries and which would leave the bulk of the estate to Knupp, as residual beneficiary. Schober drafted the new will and the testator signed it. The will, however, did not name the residual legatee. Schober submitted an affidavit to the trial court admitting that he mistakenly failed to designate a residual beneficiary in the will even though the testator had instructed him to name Knupp. Schober also provided the trial court with notes he took of his conversations with the testator to prove that the testator intended Knupp to be the residual legatee.
In an order dated November 16, Judge Barnes found that the will was ambiguous on its face and that the court should consider extrinsic evidence to determine the testator's intent. In a supplemental order, though, Judge Barnes ruled that as a matter of law, specific extrinsic evidence concerning the names of omitted legatees must be excluded.
The general rule in construing a will in the District of Columbia is that the testator's intent is the guiding principle. Wyman v. Roesner, 439 A.2d 516, 520 (D.C. 1981); see also In re Estate of Kerr, 139 U.S. App. D.C. 321, 433 F.2d 479 (1970). If the intent is clear from the language of the will, the inquiry ends there. Wyman, supra at 520; see also Brinker v. Humphries, 90 U.S. App. D.C. 180, 181, 194 F.2d 350, 352 (1952); Association of Survivors of the 7th G.A. Regiment v. Larner, 55 App. D.C. 156, 158, 3 F.2d 201, 203 (1925). However, "if the language 'upon its face and without explanation, is doubtful or meaningless' . . . a court may examine extrinsic evidence in order to understand the will." Wyman, supra, at 520 ...