Ambiguous wording must be viewed in context of surroundings

The Supreme Court in Marley V Rawlings and Another has ruled that words in a Will that could be considered contradictory or confusing must be considered by the context of the time the Will was written.

Our English language can be complex and is constantly moving and evolving. Words that have a clear meaning in the present day may have very different connotations in the past.

If I were to call you a‘cheater’ in the present day, the implication would be that you are a dishonest person; however, in 1662 a ‘cheater’ or ‘escheats’ was a respected representative of the king that would gather land for the Crown on the death of any owners left intestate with no family.

It is here that problems can start. Outdated Wills with archaic interpretations of words we use in the modern day can cause ambiguity. This is why the ruling has made it clear that language should be firmly interpreted in the context of the word used in its contemporary timeframe.

In this case, the claimants were both settlors (a person who settles property on trust and acts as a donor) and trustees. The dispute regarded what should happen if the lifetime trusts main provisions were to fail.

The claimants set the lifetime trust up on the understanding that in such a failure, the funds would revert back to the settlors. This is what clauses 4.2 and 5 made clear. However, clause 13 states that settlors were to be excluded from any benefit. The definition of ‘settlor’ was in dispute because it conflicted with the transient and changeable role of the claimants in the trust as the claimants were also the trustees.

The complicated wording and definitions of language created a juxtaposed image as to how the settlors and trustees should be viewed.

The Court applied the principle of interpretation of commercial documents as set out in Investors Compensation Scheme v West Bromwich Building Society and Rainy Sky SA v Kookmin Bank. The Court’s task was therefore to identify the intention of the parties by identifying the meaning of the relevant words having regard to:

  • the ordinary and natural meaning of those words
  • the overall purpose of the document
  • any other provisions of the document under consideration
  • the facts known or assumed by the parties at the time that the document was executed, and
  • common sense, but ignoring subjective evidence of any party’s intentions.

After close consideration of the above points, the court concluded that clause 13, that excluded the settlors from the benefits of the trust, should be disregarded.

A greater consideration of the wording that was used in the original drafting of the lifetime trust could have alleviated the confusion in the future. Avoiding ambiguity in the language that is used when creating a Will is therefore extremely important.

Have you ever experienced difficulties because of confusing language and phrases used in a Will? Should archaic and ageing documents be updated regularly to avoid these difficulties?

 

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