When wills aren’t properly proofread, they can contain typos that may misidentify people, parcels of land, homes and other possessions. When these errors are not caught before the wills are filed in probate proceedings, courts may struggle while trying to properly interpret them.
What the “Plain Meaning” Rule Means
If questions are raised about a will during probate -- based upon an assertion that the testator made a mistake when naming a beneficiary or describing property, courts generally insist on being governed by the plain meaning of the will’s contents. Examples:
- Ben, a widower, says he's leaving all of his stocks and bonds to his brother, Tim. In reality, Ben has only one brother and his name is Jim. Clearly, only one interpretation is proper here – a typo was left in the will and Jim should be awarded the property;
- Margaret lives in Delaware all year round except when she visits her niece Jill in California. Margaret's estate in Delaware is quite large and she's lived there all of her adult life. In her will, she states that she leaves all of her real property in California to her niece Jill in California. Margaret is a widow, has no children and no other nieces, nephews or other living relatives. A court will almost certainly construe this as a gift of all of Margaret's real property in Delaware to the niece living in California.
Parole Evidence: When Latent Ambiguities Are Present
In general, courts frown upon admitting parole evidence to clarify the terms of a will. The rationale is that the testator should have caught any errors in the will while still alive -- and simply failed to do so. Allowing in new evidence could easily defeat the testator's true intent. However, it’s useful to now revisit Example #2 above. What would the result have probably been regarding Margaret's will if she had both a daughter and a niece named “Jill” -- and both of them lived in California? (Further assume that Margaret simply stated she was transferring ownership of all her property in Delaware to Jill in California). Now should any other evidence be allowed in regarding an alleged mistake as to who should inherit Margaret’s property? Courts always try to honor the testator's true intent. Under the facts of this new scenario, parole and other evidence may be admitted so that the correct “Jill” can inherit the property. For example, another family member might testify that Margaret was estranged from either her daughter or niece. Such information would definitely help determine who should receive the property. Also, if the niece “Jill” in California had been the one who recently provided Margaret with extensive caregiving while she recovered from major surgery – while her own daughter Jill rarely visited her – that would also provide further convincing proof that the niece in California was the appropriate beneficiary.
To obtain help with satisfying all of your Georgia estate planning needs, please contact the Law Offices of Shane Smith today. You can schedule your free initial consultation with a knowledgeable Peachtree City estate planning attorney by calling: (770) 487-8999.