A clear and well-written estate plan is vital to avoid problems after a loved one’s passing. Unfortunately, a will or trust that contains vague or confusing terms can cause fighting and legal delays for heirs to the estate. If the beneficiaries cannot agree on an interpretation, they may have to go through a will construction proceeding before the court to resolve the ambiguities in the will.
How Courts Interpret the True Meaning of a Last Will and Testament
Most courts view wills as contracts. The court’s role is to determine and carry out the party's intent rather than rewrite the contract itself. The court has the power to interpret an ambiguous provision of the will, strike an ambiguous provision from the document, or even declare the entire document invalid.
There are typically three factors courts use to interpret the intended meaning of a last will and testament:
- Plain language. The general rule in New York is that the language used in the primary document is the best indicator of a party’s intent since the text should have been reviewed and accepted by more than one party (such as witnesses). Courts usually enforce the language of an agreement as written, unless an ambiguity requires additional evidence to determine the true intention of the decedent.
- Surrounding circumstances. If the plain language of the will does not offer a satisfactory resolution, the court may look at circumstances known to the decedent at the time the will was drafted.
- Extrinsic evidence. In some cases, the court will allow outside evidence as part of its determination. This can include calling witnesses to provide testimony or soliciting a statement from the attorney who drafted the will to clarify the decedent’s intentions. After hearing all of the necessary evidence, the court will issue a final decision.
Since beneficiaries may potentially lose their inheritances depending on the decision of the court, it is vital for beneficiaries and estate executors to hire an experienced estate litigation attorney. Contact our law firm today to tell us more about your legal dispute in your initial consultation.