January 24, 2018

Texas Courts Strictly Construe Language in Wills

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Texas Courts Strictly Construe Language in Wills

The courts will generally enforce the terms of a valid will.  The focus is on the language of the will, not external evidence that suggests a different meaning for the language included in the will.  A good example of this can be found in Estate of Neal, No. 02-16-00381-CV (Ct. App.–Ft. Worth 2018), in which the court concluded that language in a will that disposed of “all other things owned” did not include real estate the person owned.

The Facts & Procedural History

The facts and procedural history for the case are as follows.  Larry had his will prepared in 2009.  He died in 2014.  The will provided that his personal effects, tangible property, and “all other things owned by me at the time of my death” to his niece.  The court admitted the will to probate.

Larry’s daughter filed a petition seeking a court order that the “all other things owed by me at the time of my death” did not include Larry’s real estate.  The trial court concluded that this language included personal and real property.  Larry’s daughter appealed.

Texas Law for Interpreting Wills

The appeals court recited the standard Texas rules for interpreting the language in wills:

The cardinal rule for construing a will is that the testator’s intent must be ascertained by looking at the language and provisions of the instrument as a whole, as set forth within its four corners. The question is not what the testator intended to write, but the meaning of the words he actually used. Terms used are to be given their plain, ordinary, and generally accepted meanings unless the instrument itself shows them to have been used in a technical or different sense.

If possible, all parts of the will must be harmonized, and every sentence, clause, and word must be considered in ascertaining the testator’s intent. We must presume that the testator placed nothing meaningless or superfluous in the instrument. Where practicable, a latter clause in a will must be deemed to affirm, not to contradict, an earlier clause in the same will.

Whether a will is ambiguous is a question of law for the court. A term is not ambiguous merely because of a simple lack of clarity or because the parties proffer different interpretations of a term. Rather, a will is ambiguous only when the application of established rules of construction leave its terms susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning. If the court can give a certain or definite legal meaning or interpretation to the words used, the will is unambiguous, and the court should construe it as a matter of law.

These rules provide the framework for interpreting the language included in wills.

“All Other Things Owned” Does Not Include Real Property

In reading the “all other things owed by me at the time of my death” language, the appeals court concluded that it did not include real property.

The appeals court reached this conclusion by noting that the “all other things owned” language was tied to examples that only included personal property.  The full language was “all other things owned by me at the time of my death, including cash on hand in bank accounts in my own name, or companies[`] names, or securities, or other intangibles.”

This language linking the “all other things owned” to personal property caused the appeals court to reason that Larry had intended to exclude real property.

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