California, like most other states, has requirements that must be met for a document to be considered a legally binding will. For example, unless it is a handwritten holographic will, a will must be in writing, dated, and signed or authorized by the testator in the presence of two competent witnesses who are not beneficiaries of the will.

Yet there can be exceptions to these rules, as demonstrated by a case recently decided by the California Court of Appeal (Coronado v Berger).

In the spring of 2002, Melanie Berger began dating Maria Coronado, who was then in the midst of a divorce. A few months later, Maria proposed marriage to Melanie with a diamond ring, and the two Southern California women became engaged.

Melanie was assigned male gender at birth. Melanie never told her sister, Glee Berger, about her relations with Maria.

Melanie arranged to have gender reassignment surgery in August of 2002. Shortly before the scheduled surgery, Maria and her three daughters went to Spain to visit family. The couple communicated via email while Maria was away.

On August 16, 2002, while Maria was in Spain, Melanie printed out a letter on stationery from her employer at the time, the Social Security Administration. The letter was dated, listed Melanie’s full name, address, and social security number, and was addressed “To whom it may concern.”

It said that she, being of “sound mind and excellent health,” named Maria “as my sole beneficiary in the event of my death.” Maria was to “take ownership of all my personal possessions and property” at Melanie’s Pasadena home, along with her retirement savings, bank accounts, car, and various other assets.

She signed the letter, but no one witnessed her signature.

Melanie sent Maria an email informing her of the letter and asking her to use the retirement savings for the education of Maria’s three daughters in the event of Melanie’s death. The email said she would leave the letter on Maria’s desk chair prior to her gender reassignment surgery. Maria found the letter on her return from Spain.

The women continued their relationship for six months after Melanie’s surgery. They never discussed the letter, and Melanie did not designate Maria as a beneficiary of her retirement account. They ended their romantic relationship in the spring of 2003 and were not in contact with each other after that.

Melanie died on November 20, 2020. By then she had become increasingly religious. Shortly before her death, she told neighbors that she wanted to leave her assets “to the church.”

A pastor at Melanie’s church, going through the personal effects in her home, found the letter to Maria at the bottom of a desk drawer, and alerted both Maria and Melanie’s sister, Glee. By this time, Maria had lost her copy of the letter Melanie had left on her desk chair 18 years earlier.

Early in 2021, Maria filed a petition seeking to have the letter probated as Melanie’s will. Glee, who otherwise was Melanie’s sole heir at law, opposed the petition.

After a two-day hearing in September of 2021, the probate court denied Maria’s petition, saying it had “doubts about the letter and its context.” It was possible Melanie meant to benefit Maria, the court said, but it was also possible that she had simply forgotten about the letter after so many years. It noted that she had closed her retirement account nearly a decade earlier.

It also found it “strange” that the two women had not discussed the letter or Melanie’s finances, and that Maria had not told her daughters about the letter. Such behavior, it said, was “somewhat inconsistent with what engaged people do.”

Maria introduced additional evidence at a second hearing held in October of 2021, but the court did not change its decision. Maria then appealed.

The appellate justices noted that the statutory requirements for a will are intended to help prevent fraud and “help ensure that the will reflects a considered opinion.” However, they noted, “these prescribed procedures are not without exception.”

A probate court may determine “by clear and convincing evidence” that a testator intends a document to be his or her will even if it doesn’t meet the statutory requirements. The policy of the law, they said, is to favor “an interpretation of an instrument that will prevent intestacy.”

The justices noted that the wording, formatting, and formality of Melanie’s letter make it clear that she intended the document to serve as her will.

The fact that she drafted it only days before having major surgery, when she likely “was more acutely facing her own mortality,” supports this interpretation, they said.

They set aside the lower court’s comments questioning the wisdom of Melanie’s decision to name Maria as her beneficiary after only a six-month relationship, and the fact that the two never discussed the document afterward.

It’s not the court’s role to “second guess the decisions” of competent adults, the justices said.

Melanie’s failure to revisit her will later, when circumstances had changed, “has nothing to do with her intent at the time she drafted the will.”

The justices reversed the lower court’s order, ruling that Melanie intended her letter to be a will. (They did not determine if it was enforceable as a will since that issue was not presented in the appeal.) They awarded Maria her costs on appeal.

By Lynda I. Chung