A mistake or typographical error in a last will and testament can cause hardship and heartache for a deceased person's heirs. If beneficiaries cannot agree on the meaning of a confusing passage in the document, they may require the court to make a final ruling in a will construction proceeding. These matters are complex, and all beneficiaries and personal representatives to an estate should be represented by an experienced estate litigation attorney.
Rules the Court Must Follow to Determine the Meaning of Ambiguous Language in a Will
There are two kinds of ambiguities in a will: patent and latent. A patent ambiguity is one that exists due to a contradiction or incorrect information. For example, a bequest of $10,000 to the eldest daughter is made early in the will, but a later stipulation lists the same bequest as $1,000. A latent ambiguity exists when there is more than one way to apply certain words or phrases in the will, such as a bequest to "my wife" when the testator has been married several times.
Under the Florida Probate Code, will construction proceedings are only possible if the court recognizes that there is an ambiguity in the will. If the court does not believe an ambiguity in the language exists, it will not hear any testimony or presentation of evidence to dispute the meaning of the will. If the court agrees that an ambiguity exists, it will attempt to discover the testator's true intentions and reconcile the inconsistency in the document.
The court may interpret the intended meaning of a last will and testament by examining:
- Usual definitions. Florida courts are bound to enforce the language in a person's last will and testament using the ordinary or commonly accepted meanings of words. Unless there are grounds for invalidating the will, the court must also assume that the testator was lucid and meant what was said in the will.
- The entire document. One isolated provision may seem straightforward but conflict with the testator's general disposition to the estate. For this reason, the court should read the entire document to understand the testator's overall intentions and wishes for heirs and property rather than parse a single word, phrase, or paragraph of a will.
- The latest expression of the testator. In some cases, the court may decide that the latter of two conflicting provisions should prevail because it reflects the last expression of the testator's true feelings. This is generally used to decide latent ambiguities, as either the first or last of patent ambiguities may simply be typos.
- The purpose of the document. In matters of wills and trusts, courts must consider the reason for the creation of the document as well as the extent of the powers granted to the personal representative of the estate. The meaning behind the language used in the document is not as important as the meaning of the settlor's intent in creating the will and designating the person who would carry out their wishes. For example, if the document makes it clear that the youngest son should be disinherited, a later provision that includes all of the children would likely exclude the disinherited child.
- Extrinsic evidence. If the probate court cannot make a decision by examining the last will and testament alone, it may consider evidence outside of the document (called extrinsic evidence). Heirs and interested parties may present evidence to the court, including letters, video recordings, and other documentation that reflects the testator's relationships and attitudes toward beneficiaries and estate matters. The purpose of extrinsic evidence in cases involving an ambiguity in a will is to place the court in the testator's position, allowing the court to apply the terms of the will in accordance with the testator's intentions.
Since will construction cases can result in the reduction or total loss of inheritance, it's vital to choose the right attorney to fight on your behalf. Contact us today to set up a consultation with the dedicated litigators at DeLoach, Hofstra & Cavonis.