Why Does Professional Will Drafting Matter
Updated: Jan 31
Judges focus on the actual wording used when interpreting wills, which is one major reason why expert writing is so important. According to a case that served as a model, outside proof of the decedent's wishes is only significant if the wording of the will is unclear or meaningless.
A woman left her home, her stock in a corporation, and all of her personal belongings to a friend through her will. She also left him what was referred to as a "nil-rate payment" in a later provision. That was the maximum amount of money he could get without her estate having to pay Inheritance Tax (IHT). The remainder of her assets was distributed to 21 designated organisations after a handful of minor financial bequests.
After her passing, a disagreement arose about the clause's interpretation. The friend argued that under its real meaning, it meant he was qualified for a tax-free cash distribution from the estate in the amount of £325,000, which was the nil-rate band for IHT purposes in effect at the time of the woman's passing.
However, one of the charities drew attention to the fact that the value of the bequests provided to the friend in other parts of the will far outweighed the nil-rate band. It was argued that because that band had been consumed, according to a fair interpretation of the provision, he had no further claims to the inheritance.
The buddy attempted to introduce irrelevant material in support of his claim that was contained in a sworn statement from the attorney who created the will, claiming that it shed insight on the woman's motivations for doing so. But a judge favoured the charity's reading of the phrase after rejecting that evidence.
The High Court rejected the friend's appeal of that decision, pointing out that Section 21 of the Administration of Justice Act of 1982 only allows for the consideration of extraneous evidence regarding a testator's intentions in a will construction dispute when the relevant portions of a will's wording are either meaningless or ambiguous.
The Court determined that the clause's wording and the will's description of "nil-rate sum" made sense grammatically and could only have the connotation that the charity argued for. Both on their face and in the context of the situation, the words used were not clear. Therefore, the judge was right to disregard the extraneous evidence pertaining to intention.