If the wording of a will is ambiguous, how should it be interpreted?
Losing a loved one is always difficult, and the process of giving effect to their final wishes can be a daunting process. We all want to ensure that we do right by those close to us who have passed, but interpreting a legal document is challenging at the best of times, let alone when that document is their last will and testament.
It is inevitable that uncertainty will occasionally arise. When we knew the person ourselves, it can be easy for us to question whether they actually meant what the document states. So what happens when the wording of a will is ambiguous?
The starting point is that our legal system does not like to interfere with people’s wills. The courts are particularly careful not to project their own interpretation on a will, or to favour the interpretation of others, regardless of how close their relationship with the testator may have been. As with legal contracts, judges will assess the words contained in a will on an objective basis, while attempting to place themselves in the shoes of the testator at the time the document was made. Lawyers refer to this as the ‘armchair principle’.
The courts may be willing to accept evidence that assists it in carrying out this exercise. For example, they may allow evidence about the facts and circumstances surrounding the testator at the time of the execution of the will. What the court will not ordinarily allow, however, is evidence of the testator’s subjective intention. An example of this limitation would be evidence that shows a close relationship with a relative who is left far less than what they expected, in a situation where the testator is unlikely to have intended for that to be the case, despite what the will states.
Indeed the courts are becoming increasingly less willing to take this sort of evidence into account, and have recently ruled that ambiguity will only be considered where the wording used in the will can bear more than one meaning. In those situations the precise words that are ambiguous must be identified. A lack of clarity as to effect or intended outcome is insufficient, so if those words have a clear meaning, and make grammatical sense, then even if they create doubt about the intended consequence, the courts will be reluctant to intervene and allow subjective intention evidence to be taken into account when interpreting a will.