Wills Interpretation Guidelines

Wills Interpretation GuidelinesEberwein Estate v. Saleem, 2012 BCSC 250 (B.C. S.C.), the executor sought advice and direction from the court regarding bequests in a Will which were unclear, and the court set out the general guidelines for wills interpretation.


[30] Courts are greatly suspicious of attempts by testators to give with one hand and retain with the other. If an absolute gift is made, accompanied by uncertain language expressing a wish or request, the courts are reluctant to imply a trust: McIver Estate v. McIver, [1981] B.C.J. No. 68 (S.C.) at para 4; Sutherland Estate v. Nicoll Estate, [1944] S.C.R. 253 at 262, [1944] 3 D.L.R. 551 [sub. nom. Hayman v. Nicoll]. In the McIver case, the word “trust” was used and so the court did not consider the words to be “merely precatory or recommendatory”. However, in the present case, the word “trust” was not used in the clause at issue. Rather, I find that the words used here imposed no defined restrictions on the beneficiaries and are so loose that a trust could not have been intended by Ms. Eberwein, who was sufficiently sophisticated to have spelled out a trust clearly if that is what she intended.


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


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


  1. The court will seek to determine the actual intention of the testator, as opposed to an objective intent presumed by law (para. 31).
  2. Other cases interpreting words in other wills are of little assistance since the task is to interpret this testator’s subjective intentions (para. 32).
  1. 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).


  1. 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).
  1. e) The authorities distinguish between admissible and inadmissible extrinsic evidence in interpreting a will (paras. 35-38):


  1. “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;
  2. “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;


  1. f) the court will interpret the will viewed as a whole (para. 138);
  2. g) the court will prefer an interpretation that leads to a testacy, not an intestacy (para. 139); and,
  3. 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 (B.C. S.C.) at para. 77.


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