Will Construction and Interpretation Litigation & Legal Issues
Sometimes a will contains ambiguity, meaning that a provision in the will may be interpreted in multiple ways, and those interpretations may lead to varying outcomes. Ambiguity in a will may be resolved with a will construction action. During a will construction action, the court may consider extrinsic evidence to determine how the testator intended their will to be interpreted. If the ambiguity cannot be resolved by using extrinsic evidence, the court will then turn to rules of construction.
Beneficiaries, heirs, or other interested parties may wish to litigate the interpretation of a testator’s will through a will construction action. Ambiguities in a will may appear for a myriad of reasons. For example, a provision may describe multiple beneficiaries or multiple assets. It may describe a group gift or a conditional gift. During a will construction action, the court attempts to determine what the testator intended by the language of the will.
The court will generally interpret words as having their ordinary, common meaning. If words or phrases are legal terms of art ("heirs," or "residuary"), the court may interpret them as having their ordinary legal meaning. However, words often hold multiple meanings, and individuals drafting wills sometimes use borrowed language from books or other will-drafting resources. If the testator worked with a lawyer to draft their will, there may be an added layer of translation of a testator’s desires to the lawyer’s preferred legal language. The testator might not understand the legal ramifications of the language used, and the lawyer might assume that the testator accepts those ramifications. If necessary, the testator’s intended meaning of a word or phrase will most likely prevail over the technical or legal meaning.
Mistake and Revision
Some state laws may allow a court to change the words in a provision when there is clear and convincing evidence of the testator’s intent, but most courts prefer to give the existing language meaning and will only edit a provision if it is unintelligible or inoperable otherwise.
The court may consider extrinsic evidence, meaning evidence outside the will, to determine what the testator most likely intended with their language. Evidence of the testator’s intent may include notes from the drafting lawyer or the testator, or testimony from witnesses with knowledge of the testator’s desires. Evidence of the testator’s understanding of the meaning of a particular word or phrase may include witness testimony from those familiar with how the testator regularly used the word.
Rules of Construction
If the court cannot determine what a testator most likely meant by their language, it will apply the rules of construction. The rules of construction come from state case law and statutes that attempt to determine what an ordinary individual in the testator’s position likely would have intended under the circumstances.
The rules of construction vary by state, but typically a court will presume that the testator intended to dispose of all property through their will rather than through intestacy and that the testator intended their will to be legal. Rules of construction may also include the presumption that the testator preferred their heirs, rather than unrelated people, to inherit under their will or that they intended similarly situated heirs (such as three siblings) to inherit equally. A court may also presume that words or phrases defined in one area of the will have the same meaning in a different provision or that in the case of conflicting provisions, the provision that occurs later in the text or the provision that is more specific controls.
Rules of construction may also define certain phrases. For example, many courts interpret the term "personal effects" to mean items that the decedent wore or carried, or items to which the decedent had an "intimate relation." On the other hand, the term "personal property" is usually given a broader definition to include any property besides real estate.
The testator’s actual intent will always control, but rules of construction may be especially helpful when extrinsic evidence is not enough to develop a clear understanding of the testator’s intent.