Language that may be interpreted in different ways by different people can cause confusion, but in a last will and testament, it can also lead to costly estate litigation. When a certain word, phrase, or provision of a will could be taken in two or more different ways, there’s a strict process for determining the creator’s intent.
How Courts Decide the Meaning of Ambiguities in a Will
Unlike contesting a will in Florida, there’s no need to declare the entire will invalid if there’s an ambiguity in the document. Instead, the probate court will make a ruling on the intended meaning based on the deceased’s other provisions and overall disposition.
The court will have to determine:
- Whether an ambiguity exists. A will is not necessarily ambiguous just because two opposing parties interpret the will differently. The court will have to examine the document to determine whether the language in the will could be interpreted multiple ways. If the court finds that the creator’s intent can be determined as a matter of law, it will rule that no ambiguity exists and no additional evidence will be admitted.
- What type of ambiguity exists. There are two kinds of ambiguities in these proceedings: patent and latent. A patent ambiguity is apparent on its face, or an easily identifiable error—for example, a will that leaves assets to the “grandchild” when there are multiple grandchildren. A latent ambiguity happens when the words of the will could be applied in multiple ways. For example, a will that leaves “all of mother’s possessions” to one heir, but leaves “mother’s engagement ring” to another heir.
- How to reconcile inconsistent provisions. Even if an error exists in a single clause, the court will assess the document as a whole to determine the creator’s true intent. If the court cannot make a determination, it may allow both parties to submit outside evidence (such as the deceased’s personal letters or diary) to resolve the matter.
If you believe there is a mistake in your relative’s will, the Florida estate litigation attorneys at DeLoach, Hofstra & Cavonis are standing by to explain your legal options. Simply fill out the quick contact form on this page to set up a consultation and get answers to your questions.