Ambiguous Terms in Your Will: What is a Court To Do?
If you have ever been lost in an unfamiliar town and in need of directions from a local resident, you know the value of clear and unambiguous language. “Go a little down that way and turn left when you see the cactus” is not nearly as helpful as someone who directs you to “go one-half of a mile down Main Street, and then turn left when you see the road sign for Spruce Street.” The former set of instructions may lead you astray from your intended path, but if you follow the latter set of instructions you will find your way.
What is true in life is true in the context of estate planning: clear and unambiguous language rules the day. The more precise the terms and language you use in your will, trust, or other estate planning document, the more likely it is your final wishes will be carried out. However, just because you review your will and your wishes appear to be clear to you does not mean that they will be clear for your administrator or executor. Where there is ambiguity and confusion about your final wishes, courts may need to step in and provide some clarity and direction.
What is Ambiguity in the Estate Planning Context?
There is no “legal” definition for ambiguity, so the ordinary meaning of the word is used. Ambiguity exists when a certain word or phrase is capable of being interpreted or understood in two or more different ways. Consider this simple example: a decedent’s will is opened and the relevant provision leaves “all 100 acres of my land to my daughter.” The problem is, the decedent has two living daughters. This provision is ambiguous because two reasonable individuals could read this provision and disagree about which of his two daughters to whom the decedent intended to transfer the land.
While nearly any provision of a will or trust is capable of ambiguity, most problems arise when individuals do not clearly identify the specific assets or items of property they wish to bequeath to another or do not clearly identify the intended beneficiary (such as in the example in the preceding paragraph).
The Court Comes to the Rescue
Rather than throw out the entire will and treat the decedent as if he had no valid will, most courts in most jurisdictions will attempt to resolve the ambiguity in a reasonable and fair manner. Courts generally prefer to do this by attempting to carefully scrutinize the rest of the ambiguous document for clues as to the correct interpretation. Going back to the example above, suppose that the decedent’s will recited that he did in fact have two daughters but that his younger daughter was “dead to him” and he did not want her getting any portion of his estate or property. The court may find that this provision resolves the ambiguity and direct that the 100 acres be awarded to the older daughter.
Another route the court may take is to hold a hearing and consider extrinsic evidence – evidence that is beyond the mere words and contents of the document itself – in resolving the ambiguity. For example, the court may instead hear testimony from the witnesses listed in the will. If these witnesses affirm that the decedent had no desire to leave anything to his younger daughter, the court may hold that this testimony resolves the ambiguity satisfactorily.
Of course, it is always better to avoid ambiguous words and phrases in the first place. Take the time necessary to draft estate planning documents that are clear and specific, and your heirs and beneficiaries need not worry about what your true final wishes were. If you want more information about what a court will do if there are ambiguous terms in your will please contact the estate planning attorneys at Leighton & Abdo, PLLC.