Avoiding Ambiguity in Your Will

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The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently reaffirmed a long-standing rule of will interpretation in the Estate of Steven Click decision. More importantly, though, the Court’s decision provides a critical practical lesson in Maryland estate planning.

The dispute focused on a poorly drafted clause in the Last Will and Testament of Joanne Click, a resident of Edgewater. In general, a will may contain both specific bequests and what is typically called a residuary bequest. Ms. Click’s will contained several specific bequests; for example, she leaves the sum of $1,000 to each of her grandchildren. A residuary bequest, however, typically specifies how the rest (i.e., the “residue”) of the estate is distributed; for example, “in equal shares to my surviving children.” The residuary bequest in Ms. Click’s will (if it contained a residuary bequest at all) was extraordinarily unclear. The clause in question provided “any assets not directly disposed of in this Will shall be given to the surviving members in order of succession.” To say the least, this is a terrible manner in which to state one’s wishes regarding disposition of the vast majority of her estate.

The primary question before the Court was not necessarily what that clause meant, but whether outside, or extrinsic, evidence could be heard by the Court to determine what Ms. Click intended. The general rule in Maryland (and most states) is that the meaning of a will is determined by the plain words of the document itself, without resort to testimony given by others after the fact. If, however, a provision of the will is found to be ambiguous, then the Court may consider such outside testimony. Ambiguity, in this context, means more than a lack of clarity. Ambiguity is when a term may have more than one reasonable interpretation. Different groups of heirs in this matter believed that the clause had different meanings that would serve to benefit them.

The Court ultimately decided that the clause was, in fact, ambiguous and that the Circuit Court would have to conduct further proceedings to determine the meaning of Ms. Click’s will. Ultimately, the lack of clarity in Ms. Click’s will is costing her heirs a significant amount of time and money, and no one will truly know if her intent is properly honored in the end. The essential practical problem here is that Ms. Click’s intent would have been clearer if she had retained a qualified attorney or even written the will herself. Instead, she used a computer program purchased at a retail store to prepare her will. Although there are typically no “magic words” used in the drafting of a will, no computer program can substitute for the guidance and experience of a qualified attorney. The most important lesson of the Estate of Steven Click decision, then, is the relative value of good legal counsel in prudent planning.

Published In: Wills, Trusts, & Estate Planning Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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