A Summary of the Principles Relating to the Interpretation and Construct of Wills

Interpretation and Construction of Wills

The Estate of Gertrud Eberwein 2012 BCSC 250 is an excellent example of a wealthy person dying with a poorly drafted will that needs interpretation and construction by the court.

The deceased died in 2010 at age 85 years.

She did not have any children or spouse and left  an estate of $10 million.

Her will was to be distributed amongst family and friends scattered throughout the world as well as various charities, one of which was no longer in existence.

There were various issues of interpretation as many clauses in the will were either poorly drafted, vague, or the beneficiary could not be located or ceased to exist.

I will deal with how the court dealt with the charitable bequest issue in a subsequent blog.

 

The case gives a helpful summary of the various rules of interpretation and construction of wills relating to poorly drafted wills:

The goal in interpreting a will is to give effect to the testamentary intentions of the testatrix for the distribution of her estate:  Rondel v. Robinson Estate, 2011 ONCA 493, 337 D.L.R. (4th) 193, at para. 23.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Re Kaptyn Estate, 2010 ONSC 4293, 102 O.R. (3d) 1, (“Kaptyn Estate”) helpfully summarized many of the principles relating to the interpretation and construction of wills:

a)              The court will seek to determine the actual intention of the testator, as opposed to an objective intent presumed by law (para. 31).

b)              Other cases interpreting words in other wills are of little assistance since the task is to interpret this testator’s subjective intentions (para. 32).

c)               There is a distinction between interpretation and construction of a will.  Interpretation seeks to determine the testator’s subjective intentions from the words used in light of the surrounding circumstances.  Rules of construction are a default process turned to by the courts when the testator’s actual intentions cannot be ascertained (para 34).

d)              The starting position of the court is the “armchair rule”, where the court puts itself in the place of the testator at the time when he made his will.  This allows consideration of some extrinsic evidence of the surrounding circumstances known to the testator as might bear on his intentions (para. 35).

e)              The authorities distinguish between admissible and inadmissible extrinsic evidence in interpreting a will (paras. 35-38):

i.                 “indirect extrinsic evidence” of the surrounding circumstances known to the testator at the time he made the will is generally admissible.  This includes evidence of such things such as the testator’s occupation and property and financial situation; his relationships with family and friends; and natural objects of his grant;

ii.                “direct extrinsic evidence” of the testator’s intentions is generally inadmissible.  This is so as to preserve the will itself as the primary evidence, and to avoid the situation of an “oral will” displacing the written form.  However, there is an exception where there is an “equivocation”, namely, where the will describes two or more persons or things equally well.  In that situation, the law will allow evidence of the testator’s intention.  Examples of inadmissible direct evidence are such things as notes or statements of the testator as to his intention, or instructions he gave his lawyer in preparing the will;

f)                the court will interpret the will viewed as a whole (para. 138);

g)              the court will prefer an interpretation that leads to a testacy, not an intestacy (para. 139); and,

h)              the court will not hesitate to correct obvious mistakes, including deleting or inserting words, where to do so accords with the testator’s intentions, or where not to do so would lead to an absurd result (para 140).

 

[18]         The proper approach of the court is to consider the language of the will in light of the surrounding circumstances together, rather than one first and then the other: Abram Estate v. Shankoff, 2007 BCSC 1368 at para. 77.

Trevor Todd

Trevor Todd is one of the province’s most esteemed estate litigation lawyers. He has spent more than 40 years helping the disinherited contest wills and transfers – and win. From his Kerrisdale office, which looks more like an eclectic art gallery than a lawyer’s office, Trevor empowers claimants and restores dignity to families across BC. He is a mentor to young entrepreneurs and an art buff who supports starving artists the world over. He has an eye for talent and a heart for giving back.

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