Lessons Learned About Residuary Clauses after Odom v. Coleman

In the recent case of Odom v. Coleman, a brother and sister initiated legal action against another in a matter involving their father’s estate. The dispute between the two siblings focused on whether the father’s estate should be reformed in accordance with Texas Estates Code Section 255.451(a)(3) that allows courts to modify or reform a will if necessary to correct a “scrivener’s error” in the terms of the will to conform with the testator’s intent which must be based on clear and convincing evidence.


The Will In This Case


The will in this case contained a residuary clause that passed on personal property to the son and then the daughter. A rigid interpretation of the will found that the deceased man’s real property would not be included in the residuary cause instead passed through intestacy. The son then initiated legal action to revise the will to omit the word “personal” in the residuary clause. The trial court ultimately for the son and the daughter appealed.


The daughter argued that the will was unambiguous and had to be read to mean that the residuary clause only applied to personal property. The court of appeals rejected this argument because the reformation and modification cases involving written documents are different than construction cases and as a result, the same legal principles do not apply to both. The appellate court also found that reformation cases involving a party claiming that an instrument as written does not reflect the intent of the party or parties’ execution document. As a result, the court held that the trial court could hear evidence addressing the testator’s intent because this issue constituted a reformation case.


Remedying Wills to Correct Scrivener Errors


The court also noted that Estates Code subsection 255.451(a)(3) states that a will may be reformed or modified to correct a scrivener’s errors even if the will’s terms are unambiguous. To interpret the terms of a will, it sometimes becomes critical to rely on extrinsic evidence to assess whether the terms of the will accurately reflect the testator’s intention. Extrinsic evidence is admissible only in cases when a term is open to more than one construction. 


The court then considered the evidence and affirmed the trial court’s assessment that the will should be reformed. The court further held that the trial court’s finding was based on clear and convincing evidence while rejecting an argument that the son’s claim to reform the trust triggered an in terrorem clause. In conclusion, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment reforming the will to omit the word “personal” from the residuary clause so the son was entitled to all of the deceased man’s property that was not disposed of in the will.


Contact an Estate Planning Attorney


If you or a loved one is engaged in estate planning, it can be difficult to decide what plan works best for you. One of the best steps that you can take in such a situation is to speak with an experienced attorney. Contact Ettinger Law Firm today to schedule a free case evaluation.

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