Kabel v. Rosen, AC 44604

CourtAppellate Court of Connecticut
Citation215 Conn.App. 528,284 A.3d 301
Docket NumberAC 44604
Parties Reuben KABEL v. Beth ROSEN, Executrix (Estate of Marcia Chambers), et al.
Decision Date04 October 2022

215 Conn.App. 528
284 A.3d 301

Reuben KABEL
Beth ROSEN, Executrix (Estate of Marcia Chambers), et al.

AC 44604

Appellate Court of Connecticut.

Argued February 3, 2022
Officially Released October 4, 2022

284 A.3d 302

Joseph A. Hourihan, Hartford, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Scott T. Garosshen, with whom was Brendon P. Levesque, Hartford, for the appellee (named defendant).

Moll, Cradle and Clark, Js.


215 Conn.App. 530

The plaintiff, Reuben Kabel, appeals from the judgment of the trial court, rendered following a bench trial, in favor of the defendant Beth Rosen, in her capacity as executrix of the estate of the decedent, Marcia Chambers, who was the plaintiff's aunt.1 On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the court erred in failing to consider his request for an equitable remedy (i.e., "to alter the disposition of property under the distribution plan set forth under the decedent's will") that effectively would have resulted in the reformation of the decedent's unambiguous will, which he claims was necessary in light of a mistake that he alleges she made

215 Conn.App. 531

concerning whether a particular individual retirement account would be included in her residuary estate. We conclude that the court did not err in refusing to consider the plaintiff's request for an equitable remedy in the form of reformation of an unambiguous will, a remedy that has never been recognized in Connecticut. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. The decedent died on July 13, 2018. The decedent left a detailed will dated March 23, 2018, in which she nominated and appointed the defendant as the executrix of the will. The will was admitted to probate, and the Probate Court for the

284 A.3d 303

district of Branford-North Branford appointed the defendant as the executrix of the will. The will made several specific monetary bequests, including to (1) the decedent's stepchildren and their families, (2) her housekeepers and various friends, (3) the New Haven Independent, and (4) her deceased husband's alma mater, Yale Law School. The decedent directed that the defendant sell her real property—her home at 100 Clark Avenue in Branford—"on such terms as [the defendant], in [the defendant's] sole discretion, shall determine," and divide the net proceeds three ways among her two surviving stepsons and the wife of her deceased third stepson. Additionally, she left a piano to a friend and the "remainder of [her] tangible personal effects, (excluding money and securities of any kind) any automobile or automobiles which may be in [her] name at the time of [her] death, all of [her] household furniture and furnishing, and all other tangible personal property owned by [her] at the time of [her] death" to be divided, in as nearly equal shares as practicable, among the issue of her deceased husband, per stirpes, and the plaintiff. The decedent also specified that her residuary estate, "[a]ll the rest, residue and remainder of [her] property and estate, real, personal or mixed," should be divided

215 Conn.App. 532

in the following manner: 15 percent to each of her two surviving stepsons and to the wife of her deceased third stepson, 10 percent to the plaintiff, 10 percent to each of the two children of her deceased stepson, and 5 percent to each of the five children of her surviving stepsons.

On or about November 9, 2018, the defendant filed an initial inventory of the estate's assets. On April 25, 2019, the defendant filed an updated inventory, which valued the estate at $682,230.63. On May 23, 2019, the defendant completed a pro forma form 706,2 which provided that the estate had $62,816.57 in funeral expenses and expenses incurred in administering property subject to claims. The form also showed a Fidelity Individual Retirement Account (IRA) valued at $2,127,023.47 on the date of the decedent's death. Because that IRA had designated beneficiaries, however, it did not pass through the will. The plaintiff was not a named beneficiary of the IRA. The estate had insufficient assets to fully satisfy the specific monetary bequests and administrative costs; therefore, the residual beneficiaries, including the plaintiff, did not receive a residuary distribution.

On June 7, 2019, the plaintiff commenced this action. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent mistakenly believed that the IRA was a probate asset subject to distribution under her will and that she relied on this mistaken assumption in "includ[ing] the numerous bequests and devise in her will." Accordingly, the plaintiff claimed that "he ha[d] been damaged by [the decedent's mistaken belief] as to [the IRA] not being a probate asset to the value of ten percent of the value of said retirement account at the time of [her] death" and argued that article VII of the will, which provided for

215 Conn.App. 533

the distribution of the net proceeds from the sale of the decedent's real property, should be subject to equitable abatement in order to fund the plaintiff's claim for monetary damages.3 The beneficiaries of the net proceeds from the sale of the decedent's home

284 A.3d 304

were the same individuals designated as the beneficiaries of the IRA.

The matter was tried to the trial court, S. Richards, J. , on November 10, 2020. Following trial, the court issued its memorandum of decision rendering judgment in favor of the defendant. The court first determined that the key question raised by the plaintiff's claims was whether, in the absence of "any obvious ambiguity in [the decedent's] will, extrinsic evidence presented could defeat [the decedent's] bequest to [the plaintiff] if a mistake in [the decedent's] understanding about the nature of the IRA bequest was established." The court then held "that extrinsic evidence cannot be considered under the circumstances alleged by [the plaintiff]. Under our general rules of law ... the court is not permitted to read ambiguity into the four corners of [the decedent's] will where there is none nor consider extrinsic evidence relating to allegations by [the plaintiff] concerning scrivener's errors on the part of [the decedent's attorney] in drafting [the decedent's] will or [the decedent's] supposed misunderstanding about her IRA bequest in the will." As to the plaintiff's requested equitable remedy, the court added: "In light of this conclusion, the court finds that it is unnecessary to address the equitable remedy that [the plaintiff] presented to the court for disposition." This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

On appeal, the plaintiff does not challenge—and we leave undisturbed—the court's conclusion that the

215 Conn.App. 534

decedent's will is unambiguous.4 The plaintiff claims, instead, that, notwithstanding the lack of any ambiguity in the decedent's will, the court erred in failing to consider his requested equitable remedy, which would effectively require reformation of the decedent's will and which he claims was necessary in light of the decedent's purported misunderstanding regarding how the IRA would be disposed of on her death. In support of this claim, the plaintiff's contentions distill to whether the trial court failed: (1) to apply the law of the case doctrine, (2) to consider intrinsic evidence to determine the decedent's intent, and (3) to consider extrinsic evidence to determine the decedent's intent. We address, and reject, each of these contentions and conclude that the plaintiff's claim suffers from a more fundamental, and indeed fatal, flaw, namely, that equitable reformation of the decedent's unambiguous will is not an available remedy as a matter of law.


Relying on the law of the case doctrine, the plaintiff first contends that the court erred in failing to adhere to the court's prior denial of the motion to strike the plaintiff's complaint filed by the defendants Steven Wheeler, Warren C. Wheeler, and Haynie Wheeler (movants). This contention warrants little discussion.

"The application of the law of the case doctrine involves a question of law, over which our review is plenary. ... The law of the case doctrine expresses the practice of judges generally to refuse to reopen what [already] has been decided .... [When] a matter has previously been ruled [on] interlocutorily, the court in a subsequent proceeding in the case may treat that decision as the law of the case, if it is of the opinion that the issue was correctly decided, in the absence of

215 Conn.App. 535

some new or overriding circumstance.

284 A.3d 305

... A judge should hesitate to change his own rulings in a case and should be even more reluctant to overrule those of another judge. ... Nevertheless, if ... [a judge] becomes convinced...

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