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How Do Courts Interpret Wills?


The effectiveness of any document, particularly those with legal consequences, rests on how well it was drafted. Wills can be especially tricky because they are commonly created years before they are needed and can never entirely account for the various changes in circumstances that can arise during this time. Thus, something that seemed clear when the will was drafted can quickly become murky if heirs die or get divorced, property is sold, or any other unexpected event occurs. If an estate is not governed by a will, the rules of intestacy will distribute assets according to blood relation, but courts would much rather follow the directions of a will if it is at all possible to interpret and apply it in a way that reflects what the deceased wanted. A family in Tennessee is fighting two charitable organizations over rights to land that has been in the family for hundreds of years. The death of the family patriarch and his primary heir, a son who was 21 years old, within months of one another has caused considerable confusion, but courts, so far, have ruled in favor of three surviving nieces and nephews. Estate disputes, unfortunately, are not that uncommon, and the interpretation of the language in a will is a big component of many of these cases.

Testator’s Intent

As noted above, courts want to allow the content of a will to drive the distribution of an estate, and if there is a dispute over its meaning, the main aspect the judge will focus on is the testator’s, or deceased’s, intent when the document was created. This analysis is mainly limited in scope to the contents of this document, and looks at the intent as a whole, and not to a specific provision. If the intent is clear from a reading of the whole document, the court will accept and enforce that meaning, even if it seems to conflict with a specific clause. In other words, the court is most concerned with figuring out the testator’s purpose when creating the document, and not on honoring or invalidating certain bequests if it would defeat the overall scheme.

Outside Evidence

While courts do make every effort to limit an interpretation of a will to the contents of the document itself, it is sometimes necessary to bring in outside evidence if the will’s language creates ambiguities. There are two types of ambiguity in the law: patent and latent. Patent ambiguities are unclear on their face and usually result in the court invalidating the document and excluding outside evidence. By contrast, latent ambiguities arise when the words in a specific gift are unclear in their application. In this situation, courts will allow outside evidence to clarify what the testator was trying to achieve with the gift in order to support executing his/her general intent. Drawing the line between these two types of ambiguities not always straightforward, and attorneys and judges can disagree. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney to draft these documents and to address any disputes is essential to getting the best approach in each situation.

Speak with an Estate Planning Attorney

Your estate documents are some of the most important papers you will ever possess, and you want to make sure they not only communicate your true wishes, but also that they will be legally enforceable. Clearwater estate planning attorney William Rambaum knows the difficulties poorly drafted documents can create, and has the experience needed to avoid this outcome. Contact the firm today to schedule an appointment.




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