Ambiguous Wills - Court of Appeal Gives Effect to Deceased's Intentions

Where words used in a will are ambiguous, judges will strive to interpret them in a way that gives effect to the deceased's intentions. An instructive Court of Appeal decision on point hinged on the little-known fact that the Channel Islands are not formally part of the United Kingdom.

The case concerned a man who, at the date of his death, owned assets in Russia, England and Jersey. By his will, he left all his 'UK assets' to his children. After his death, an issue arose between the children and his widow as to whether that bequest included his assets in Jersey. A judge found that it did.

Challenging that decision, the widow pointed out that the Channel Islands, although falling under Crown jurisdiction, are not legally part of the United Kingdom. None of the dictionary definitions of 'United Kingdom' embrace the Channel Islands and the meaning of the term was said to be immutable.

Dismissing her appeal, however, the Court noted that it was established by case law that the term 'United Kingdom' can, in some contexts, be interpreted so as to include the Channel Islands. The will therefore contained an ambiguity, in the sense that the term could be given more than one meaning. The judge was therefore entitled to look beyond the will's wording in order to discern the man's intentions.

Dictionary definitions were not decisive and, were a narrow legal definition of 'United Kingdom' adopted, the result would be a partial intestacy. That was an undesirable outcome that would run contrary to the presumption that, by making a will, testators intend to dispose of all their relevant assets. The man had himself spotted the ambiguity in his will prior to his death and extraneous evidence showed beyond doubt that he intended his bequest to his children to encompass his Jersey assets.