Employing the term spouse in trust instruments: An unambiguous term can still be “textually” ambiguous

Charles E. Rounds, Jr.

A trust term can be unambiguous and ambiguous at the same time. Consider the term spouse. In Trust Agreement of Johnson, 194 N.J. 276, 944 A.2d 588 (2008), the court wrestled with the issue of whether a class of trust beneficiary characterized as “spouses” of certain designated individuals included their surviving spouses, i.e., their widows and widowers. While the trial court found the word spouses to be “unambiguous on its face,” the appellate courts disagreed. They saw the term spouses as contextually ambiguous. The trial court, in holding that “spouses” included surviving spouses, was guided by the plain meaning rule. The appellate courts in upholding the decision of the trial court saw themselves as resolving a contextual ambiguity. All three courts took into consideration extrinsic evidence, particularly the testimony of the scrivener as to the settlor's probable intent.

Here is another “unambiguous” provision for the benefit of someone’s “spouse,” in this case the spouse of the settlor’s only living son. At the time of the trust’s execution (funding) he was married to Cynthia. Later he divorced Cynthia and married Carol. Was Cynthia now out and Carol now in? Or was it still Cynthia, and Cynthia alone? The trial court’s finding of the latter was affirmed on appeal. “We decline to redraft the Trust to reach a presumed intent to benefit a potential replacement ‘spouse.’” See Ochse v. Ochse, No. 04-20-00035-CV, 2020 WL 6749044 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Nov. 18, 2020). Both courts found it contextually unambiguous that “spouse” meant Cynthia, and Cynthia alone. There was no “evidence” to the contrary.

These language-construction issues play out at the intersection of the parol evidence rule and the plain meaning rule. See generally §8.15.6 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (2021), which section is reproduced in its entirety in the Appendix below.

LOADING PDF: If there are any problems, click here to download the file.

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.

© Charles E. Rounds, Jr., Suffolk University Law School | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Charles E. Rounds, Jr.

Suffolk University Law School on:

Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
- hide
- hide

This website uses cookies to improve user experience, track anonymous site usage, store authorization tokens and permit sharing on social media networks. By continuing to browse this website you accept the use of cookies. Click here to read more about how we use cookies.