In re Estate of Gibbs
14 Wis. 490, 111 N.W.2d 413 (1961)

  • Robert Krause worked at a steel factory for Gibbs. The two maintained a lifelong friendship that extended into Gibbs’ retirement.
  • Gibbs made a number of wills throughout his life. The early ones listed Robert Krause as a beneficiary. The later ones (including the last one) listed Robert J. Krause as a beneficiary.
    • Robert Krause’s middle initial was not ‘J’!
    • The will listed Robert J. Krause’s address, but that wasn’t where Robert Krause lived. That was where someone else named ‘Robert J. Krause’ lived.
      • There was no ambiguity. There was plain language (aka plain meaning) which could only be interpreted one way.
        • Probably the lawyer made a mistake looking up the address in the phone book.
  • Gibbs died. Robert J. Krause stepped forward as a beneficiary. Robert Krause objected, claiming that he was the intended beneficiary of the bequest.
    • Robert J. Krause had no relation to Gibbs. Although maybe he drove Gibbs’ wife around in a taxi once.
  • The Probate Court found for Robert Krause. Robert J. Krause appealed.
    • The Probate Court found that Gibbs intended to give the $$$ to Robert Krause.
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed.
    • In general, unless there is ambiguity in the text of the will, extrinsic evidence is inadmissible for the purpose of determining intent.
    • However, the Court found that details of identification which are highly susceptible to mistake (like middle initials) should not be accorded such sanctity as to frustrate an otherwise clearly demonstrable intent.
      • Once the Court threw out all the details (like the middle initial), then all of a sudden “Robert Krause” became ambiguous, which allowed the Court to look at extrinsic evidence.
      • It was clear that the $$$ was intended to go to Robert Krause, not Robert J. Krause, so the Court decided to overlook the mistake.
    • The Wisconsin Supreme Court identified two classes of ambiguity:
      • Where two+ people match the description in the will.
      • Where no one matches the description in the will.
        • Neither of these ambiguities were present in Gibbs’ will, at least not until the Court threw out some of the identifying information.
          • It’s pretty clear that the Court was really stretching to make sure the money went to the right person.