Need Help Interpreting a Will or Trust?

Oakland Probate Litigation Lawyers Explain Contested Wills

In drafting a will or setting up a trust, most people assume that their wishes are clear. However, errors or ambiguities cause confusion when the will is probated or the trust is administered. Unforeseen circumstances may change the meaning of a will, or unclear language may cast doubts on who will inherit which assets. In these cases, California probate courts generally stress the importance of the original intent of the person who created the will or trust (the testator). To resolve ambiguities and protect the integrity of the testator’s wishes, extrinsic evidence is often used to clarify the language of a will.

A defective or confusing will can lead to prolonged legal battles as well as emotional strife. Our California probate litigation lawyers represent those who are struggling to clarify a loved one’s true intentions in ambiguous wills and trusts. We can review the legal documents and protect your interests in probate mediation or in court. If evidence exists that can clarify certain ambiguities, then we can assist you in submitting it to the probate court.

When Might a Will or Trust Require Interpretation?

There are many factors that may contribute to confusion in a will or trust. Sometimes, a will may have been drafted years ago, and new laws, regulations or family developments may conflict with the original language. In other cases, simple errors or omissions may confuse the testator’s intent. Every will is different, and therefore each may contain unique ambiguities. However, the general categories of potential uncertainties include:

  • Patent ambiguity. This is a contradiction or vague area that is obvious in the will. This means there is a problem with the language itself, without considering the circumstances. For example, the will may name a beneficiary but fail to specify the exact amount.
  • Latent ambiguity. This kind of ambiguity occurs when the language appears clear, but the actual circumstances make it unclear. For example, if a testator has two relatives with the same or similar names, this may cause confusion. There are two general types of latent ambiguity: equivocation and misdescription. An equivocation occurs when the language in a will may apply to two or more objects or people. A misdescription is when part of a description is incorrect, such as misstating a beneficiary’s middle name, for instance.
  • Scrivener’s error. This is a mistake made by the person writing the will, often a lawyer or someone other than the testator. Common scrivener’s errors include the omission of a word, misspellings and other drafting mistakes.

What is Extrinsic Evidence and How Can It Help?

In many cases, confusion in a will or in the terms of the trust can be resolved by extrinsic evidence. This is outside evidence that can resolve a patent ambiguity, latent ambiguity and/or scrivener’s error. Often, a probate judge will allow the admission of extrinsic evidence to preserve the testator’s original intent. This may require a reformation of the will or trust.

However, each case is different, and sometimes the courts may uphold the plain meaning of the document. If so, extrinsic evidence cannot add or subtract from the will or terms of the trust, although small ambiguities may be clarified.

Notably, California probate courts usually recognize the personal usage exception. This admits extrinsic evidence to clarify certain language that the testator uses repeatedly. For example, a will may refer to a beneficiary by a nickname, rather than his or her legal name. Evidence such as a letter or witness testimony may clarify to whom this nickname refers. Additionally, the court will often overlook small errors and/or omissions according to the harmless error rule. This is true as long as the testator’s original intent is clear.

Contested Will? Contact Our California Probate Litigation Lawyers Now

Probate lawyer Charles Triay has been assisting with the interpretation of ambiguous wills and trusts in California for over 30 years. As a certified specialist in probate and trust law, he can offer expert advice on your situation and explain your options as a beneficiary. Triay Law Office also give you the option of paying attorney fees on a contingent or hourly basis, unlike most law firms.

Contact our probate lawyer online or call (510) 463-3165 to learn your legal options today.