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Literal Interpretation

Where the wording of a Will is ambiguous or open to interpretation it is necessary to get the opinion of the courts in order to ascertain the way an estate should be dealt with following death. The courts have traditionally adopted the ‘literal’ approach but this can cause problems for home made or badly written wills.

The literal approach adopted by the courts ensures that words are given their ‘ordinary meaning’ but often this actually meant that the words were given a ‘lawyers’ meaning rather than the interpretation of a lay person. This meant that, where a will had been hand written by a testator, the ‘literal’ interpretation of a lawyer may produce unintentional results.

The first challenge to this method was seen in Perrin v Morgan [1943]. In this case a hand made will left ‘all moneys of which I die possessed’ to a class of beneficiaries. Earlier interpretation had decided that ‘moneys’ meant purely cash assets but the deceased in this case left only stocks and shares and would therefore have died almost entirely intestate had this interpretation been given to her will. The case went all the way to the House of Lords (undoubtedly eating into the £30,000 estate) where they widened the interpretation to allow the stocks and shares to pass as intended.

The decision was that the will had to be read and interpreted by reading it as a whole and not by giving individual words their literal meaning.

A further case saw the lower courts showing reluctance to deviate from the literal approach.

In Re Rowland [1963] a home made will left everything to the testator’s wife with the following provision; ‘in the event of the decease of the said (wife) preceding or coinciding with my own decease, I give and bequeath…’ and then left everything to other beneficiaries.

The couple both died in a boating accident and there was no indication as to who died first. The court had to decide whether the death of his wife had ‘coincided’ with his own death to allow the gift to other beneficiaries to take place. In the first instance the judge said that the word ‘coincide’ means simultaneous and that the deaths did not coincide as they could have been seconds or even minutes apart.

This meant his wife was deemed to have survived him as she was younger and inherited his estate which passed to different beneficiaries under her own will.

The dissenting judge in this case adopted a purely intentional approach similar to that adopted by the higher courts. He stated that the testator had intended the words ‘coinciding with’ to cover their dying on the same occasion and by the same cause, not necessarily at the very same moment.

Many clients do not understand why such ‘legal language’ must be used in Wills and can often request that the Will be simplified. These cases show that there is a reason for the use of the correct language; to ensure that the intentions of the testator are clearly documented and in such a way that the courts will interpret them in accordance with this intention.

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