Creating a will is a crucial step in ensuring your assets are distributed according to your wishes after you pass away. Ideally, a will should be clear and unambiguous, leaving no room for misinterpretation. However, what happens when a will contains ambiguous terms? In Florida, the law addresses this issue, providing guidelines for interpreting such wills. Let’s explore this topic in more detail.
What happens if a Will is ambiguous?
732.6005 Rules of Construction and intention.-
(1) The intention of the testator as expressed in the will controls the legal effect of the testator’s dispositions. The rules of construction expressed in this part shall apply unless contrary intention is indicated by the will.
(2) Subject to the foregoing, a will is construed to pass all property which the testator owns at death, including property acquired after the execution of the will.
Florida courts have ruled that the initial inquiry as to will construction is, “what is the intent of the testator?” Florida courts have decided to find the answer to the above question is to find the testator’s intention from within the four corners of the will. Meaning that courts will consider the entire will and not isolated words paragraphs when clarifying ambiguous terms. Taulbee v. Kozel, 354 So. 3d 618 (Fla. 3d DCA 2023). Thus, the court will not look at one clause or section of the will out of context, the courts will look at the entire will to try to determine the meaning of the will.
In Taulbee, the decedent had a Last Will and Testament naming his wife and son (D.F.T.) as beneficiaries. The decedent’s wife died leaving the son D.F.T as sole beneficiary. The decedent was diagnosed with severe dementia and could no longer be D.F.T’s primary caregiver. The decedent surrendered his parental rights because he could not support D.F.T. The decedent’s son was then adopted by Ms. Kozel and changed their name to D.A.K. The following year the decedent died, and the court had to determine whether D.A.K. was entitled to the will’s dispositions since the will named D.F.T. as the beneficiary and the will had not been changed to reflect the new name, D.A.K. Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals ruled that D.F.T was entitled to the will’s dispositions because the will and surrounding circumstances at the time of the will’s creation indicated for the decedent’s son to be the beneficiary.
In other situations Florida courts have sometimes allowed extrinsic evidence to be admitted when attempting to understand the intent of the testator. Courts have allowed circumstances surrounding the execution of the will, the condition, nature and extent of the property devised, the testator’s relationship and attitudes toward family members and to the will’s beneficiaries, their condition and in general the relationship between all the parties concerned to be admitted to aide in the understanding the testator’s intent. Pancoast v. Pancoast, 97 So.2d 875, 876 (Fla. 2d DCA 1957). As the Court in Pancoast stated:
“The fundamental and controlling axiom is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the testator as gathered from what was written in the will. Wallace v. Julier, 1941, 147 Fla. 420, 3 So.2d 711. In order to do this the court should as nearly as humanly possible try to put itself in the place of, or the armchair of, the testator. To accomplish this it is proper to consider all circumstances surrounding the execution of the will, the condition, nature, and extent of the property devised, the testator’s relationship and attitudes toward the members of his family and to the beneficiaries of the will, their financial condition and in general the relationship between all the parties concerned, including, as in this case, the trustee. 57 Am.Jur., Wills, Section 1144. Florida courts have consistently followed this practice. Roberts v. Mosely, 1930, 100 Fla. 267, 129 So. 835; Marshall v. Hewett, 1945, 156 Fla. 645, 24 So.2d 1; Iles v. Iles, 1947, 158 Fla. 493, 29 So.2d 21.”
Our office handles Probate and Will Litigation cases throughout the State of Florida. If you have any questions or issues with a Last Will and Testament or Probate we would love to hear from you. Give us a call for a free no obligation consultation.
-Brice Zoecklein, Esq.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog/website is for informational purposes only and provides general information about the law but not specific advice. This information should not be used as a substitute for advice from competent legal counsel as laws change and the facts in your specific case need to be analyzed.