Friday, October 25, 2013
This semester in my course on Wills, Trusts & Estates we have talked about the trend in modern cases to resolve conflicts over wills and trusts by attempting to respect the "intent" of the testator or settlor, even when imperfectly expressed in a written document. But, there are often lines beyond which courts will not go to supply missing words or resolve ambiguity.
In Estate of George Zeevering, decided by an intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania on September 26, 2013, the court was facing an incomplete do-it-yourself will. The testator had not consulted with a lawyer. He attempted to make specific bequests. One bequest was deemed a "nullity" because the property was already titled in the names of the decedent and a son as joint tenants with right of survivorship. The father also stated that the "failure of this will to provide any distribution" to three of his daughters was "intentional."
However, there was no provision made in the will for any residuary and the residuary estate, after payments of debts, totaled over $200,000.
The appellate court upheld the distribution of the residuary to all of the children:
"[I]t was proper for the orphans' court to conclude that where the intent of the testator is not clear from the will, where the will fails to dispose of a decdent's entire estate, and where the will fails to provide a residuary clause, the residuary estate is to be distributed under intestacy laws."