Interpreting Wills That May Be Ambiguous - High Court Guidance

Even with the most careful drafting, there is always a risk that a will may be capable of bearing more than one meaning. In resolving a family inheritance dispute, the High Court considered the extent to which extraneous evidence of a will-maker's intentions can be used as an aid to interpretation of the words actually used.

The case concerned a businessman who, by his will, bequeathed a life interest in his home to his wife if she survived him. In the event, she predeceased him. Following his death, an issue arose as to whether the property should be held on trust for his son alone or whether it should pass into his residuary estate, which stood to be divided equally between his son and his daughter.

The daughter argued that, on a correct reading of the will, the trust in favour of her brother only arose if their father died before their mother. The son asserted that his father had told him on numerous occasions that he would in due course inherit the house. The true interpretation of the will, he argued, was that the property was held on trust for him, whichever of his parents died first.

Employing conventional rules of interpretation, the Court ruled in favour of the son's reading of the will. That interpretation accorded with other provisions of the will, the overall purpose of the document, common sense and the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used.

The Court noted that the son's interpretation aligned with the businessman's very clear instructions to the solicitor who drafted the will. Whilst anxious that his wife should be able to continue living in the house if she survived him, extraneous evidence established his plain intention that his son would eventually inherit the property, come what may. Had the wording of the will been ambiguous, the Court would have rectified its terms in order to achieve that outcome.