Reading of the Will and Legacies
Where there is any dispute or uncertainty about the meaning of a will, the courts can be asked to decide the point.
However, the court’s ability in this regard is somewhat limited, and so real care must be taken when drafting the will.
A recently reported case, that of Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind v Beasant & Another (2021), where an appeal has just failed, has highlighted this area of law. It has also reminded practitioners of the care required as to inheritance tax consequences.
Construction of a Will
Section 21 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 states that where the court is asked to determine the meaning of a will or a particular clause within a will, then it can admit and consider evidence as to the testator’s intention if (i) any part of it is meaningless, or (ii) the language used in any part is ambiguous on the face of it.
Otherwise, the court is required to interpret the will by looking at the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used, its overall purpose, the other provisions within the will, the facts known to or assumed by the testator, and common sense. Evidence as to the deceased’s intention is ignored.
There is an alternative to a Claim for Construction (i.e. interpretation) of a will, which is for rectification (i.e. amendment) of a will.
Section 20 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 states that if the court believe a will fails to carry out the testator’s intention, either due to a clerical error or a failure of the will preparer to understand their instructions, then they can rectify (i.e. correct) it.
RCSB v Beasant (2021) 000
In this case, Alletsons Solicitors prepared a will in 2016 for an Audrey Arkell, who passed away in 2017.
Clause 4 of the will stated “I GIVE the Nil-Rate Sum to my Trustees on trust for my said friend JOHN WAYLAND BEASANT” and Clause 4.1 defined the term “Nil-Rate Sum” as being “the largest sum of cash which could be given….without any inheritance tax becoming due in respect of the transfer of the value of my estate”.
Subsequently, clause 5 of the will left a property to Mr Beasant, free of inheritance tax, clause 6 left shares in a company to Mr Beasant, free of inheritance tax, and Clause 7 left the deceased’s personal chattels to Mr Beasant, also free of inheritance tax.
The residuary estate was then to be left to twenty-one charities.
A dispute subsequently arose as to the effect of the will, and in particular the construction, or interpretation, of the will.
It was Mr Beasant’s position, seemingly supported by Alletsons Solicitors and the will preparation solicitor, that he ought to get the gift of £325,000 (the nil-rate band at the deceased’s date of death), the property, the shares and the personal chattels.
Conversely, the charities’ position was that, as the value of the property, the shares and the personal chattels exceeded the nil-rate band amount, the gift under clause 4 amounted to £0.
The submissions made on behalf of Mr Beasant primarily were that, if the charities’ interpretation of the will was accepted, it would render clause 4 pointless, which would run contrary to the testator’s intentions. If she hadn’t meant that gift to be made, then the clause would not have been included at all. Further, they sought to put evidence as to the testator’s intentions before the court.
However, the court took the view that the wording of clause 4 was not ambiguous or meaningless in any way. Indeed, the will had even gone so far as to specifically define the term “nil-rate band”. Therefore, it was not possible for them to take into account the testator’s intentions.
As the claim was for construction (i.e. interpretation) of the will, the meaning of the wording used was considered to be quite clear. On that basis, the charities’ position was found to be the correct one, with there being no additional gift of £325,000 to Mr Beasant.
Rather ironically, for all the talk when discussing the testator’s intentions of her wish for a tax-efficient will, the Charities’ interpretation resulted in less inheritance tax being payable, albeit that Mr Beasant ended up with a smaller benefit.
To add insult to injury, there was also a suggestion within the Judgment that the outcome might have been different if the claim had been for rectification (i.e. amendment), rather than construction. That is because the deceased’s intentions would then have been admissible.
This case is an interesting and helpful reminder of the care that must be taken when drafting a will, especially when considering the inheritance tax implications, and ensuring that the testator’s wishes are put into effect.
Further, it highlights the potential avenues that are available if something goes wrong with the preparation of a will or the meaning of wording in a will is unclear. Also, though, the limitations of those avenues is made plain.
We can help you
If a loved one has passed away and a dispute has arisen in relation to (i) the interpretation of the will, or (ii) whether the will was drafted in line with the testator’s wishes, contact us., Our Contested Wills, Trusts and Estates Team is here for you on 01823 625841.
We handle a variety of disputes and issues surrounding wills and estates. Further, we are able to offer high-quality, cost-effective legal advice on such matters, with flexible funding arrangements such as Conditional Fee Agreements (i.e. No-Win, No-Fee arrangements) also being available.