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Introduction of extrinsic evidence in will contest improper when there is no ambiguity

Holding that there was no ambiguity in the decedent’s will, the court agreed with the respondent that the trial court erred in ruling that a latent ambiguity existed in the will and in allowing extrinsic evidence to be used in determining what this ambiguity meant. Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s order granting the petitioners’ cross-motion for summary disposition. Decedent had executed three separate wills, all of which dictated that the remainder of her estate be divided into three equal shares for her daughters. This included her most recent will. Before her death, she purchased four annuities through petitioner-Huntington Bank, naming respondent (Angela) as sole beneficiary of all four. When decedent named only respondent as a beneficiary, a bank employee asked why she wanted respondent to be the sole beneficiary, and decedent responded, “Angela knows what I want done with it.” Respondent argued that “the decedent’s will was plain and unambiguous, and by its plain terms the will did not consider the annuity benefits as being included in the residue of the estate.” Thus, “resort to extrinsic evidence to prove otherwise was unnecessary. Petitioners wanted the extrinsic evidence admitted to clarify decedent’s intentions, which were that the parties were to share the annuity benefits equally.” The trial court held that the decedent intended the annuities to be shared equally between the parties. However, the court concluded that it was “clear that decedent differentiated between bank accounts and her other forms of investments.” An annuity is “not a bank account; it is a contract which provides payments at a certain interest rate. Annuities are a form of insurance product, almost the exact opposite of life insurance; they provide financial protection against a very long life by giving a constant stream of income.” The court agreed with respondent “that, unlike the other bank accounts which were jointly owned, the annuities were wholly owned by decedent who named respondent as the sole beneficiary, which implies that decedent intended to leave these annuities directly to respondent alone.” As the decedent purchased the annuities after executing her last will, the assets that were used to purchase the annuity contracts were no longer part of the estate. “These annuities have an assigned beneficiary (respondent) and, as such, this money belongs directly and solely to her and are not part of the estate in probate.”