Interpretation of a Will or Trust – Decedent’s or Trustor’s Intent Should Prevail – Admissibility of Extrinsic Evidence

The following is a brief discussion about the interpretation of a will or trust in California. Why is interpretation important? Because the estate or assets should be administered and distributed in accord with the Decedent’s or Trustor’s intent. In the majority of cases the wording of the will or trust and the Decedent’s or Trustor’s intent are clear and correctly stated. However, it can be surprising in how many cases wording can be ambiguous or missing, or the Decedent’s or Trustor’s intent might not be clear, or clearly or properly stated in the will or trust.

It is long established California law that it is the intent of the decedent that controls the legal effect of his/her dispositions and whether or not an alleged will or trust document is in fact his/her valid and enforceable last will or trust including the interpretation of that alleged will or trust document, and that as an aid to the understanding of the alleged will or trust document and to the discovery of the Decedent’s or Trustor’s intent extrinsic evidence and evidence of the surrounding circumstances are admissible. Estate of Russell (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 200, 2006; Estate of Hollingsworth (1940) 37 Cal. App. 2d 432, 435; Cal. Probate Code §21102; see also Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §1860 (for the proper construction of an instrument, the circumstances under which it was made, including the situation of the subject of the instrument, and of the parties to it, may also be shown, so that the Trier of fact be placed in the position of the person whose language is being interpreted); and Cal. Probate Code §6111.5. For example, extrinsic evidence is admissible not only to resolve a latent ambiguity in a will but also to show that a latent ambiguity exists, as by showing that more than one person met the description of beneficiary in the will, that more than one thing met the description of what appeared as a specific devise or bequest, or that certain language of the will was understood and intended by the testator to have a meaning different from what on its face it appeared to have. In re Flint’s Estate (1972) 25 Cal.App.3d 945.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco)
Disclaimer and Warning About This Blog and Post: The contents and discussions on this blog are not a solicitation for or to provide attorney, legal or other services, are only a summary of complicated and more detailed topics, pertain if at all only to California, and do not apply to any specific person, organization, situation or circumstance. You cannot rely on these contents or discussions for your situation, and you definitely should consult with an attorney for your situation, and to make sure that you don’t file or commence any legal action or court proceeding that could trigger a no contest or other will or trust clause or provision which might or could disinherit you.

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