Precise Wording Important in Last Will & Testament

Certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

(2007)A recent Pennsylvania court ruling points up the value of precise drafting in estate planning.

The Last Will and Testament of Henry H. Wilton contained the following clause: “I give and bequeath my saddle and bridle, by double and single harness and tack, all my horse-drawn vehicles, and any Rose Tree Hunt memorabilia to my good friend, John Brislin.”

Mr. Wilton and Mr. Brislin had been close friends and avid members of the Rose Tree Fox Hunting Club, the oldest fox hunting club in the United States, dating back to 1859.

Following Mr. Wilton’s death, and the distribution of his effects, Mr. Brislin complained that many items of “Rose Tree Hunt memorabilia” had been sold at auction for a total value of $80,850.77, instead of given to him under the will.

The executors apparently refused to pony up the money, so Mr. Brislin went hunting for a better deal in court. He testified that he and Mr. Wilton “thought on the same wavelength” and would both consider “anything to do with horses, hounds, or foxes, fox hunting scenes, or anything like that” as “memorabilia.”

The trial court reined in Mr. Brislin’s expansive definition, and held that the term referred only to those items that had an “obvious and objective connection with Rose Tree Hunt.” The court’s definition did not include such items as dinnerware depicting foxes or hunt scenes, a weathervane depicting a horse, or a chair made of horseshoes.

Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the ruling on appeal:

[W]e must focus on the precise wording of the will and … are not permitted to determine what we think the testator might or would have desired under the existing circumstances, or even what we think the testator meant to say. Rather, we must focus on the meaning of the testator’s words within the four corners of the will.

In their book The Family Fight: Planning to Avoid It, estate lawyers Barry Fish and Les Kotzer offer a pertinent suggestion relating to personal effects:

[A]void using general phrases such as ‘my antiques’ because such phrases are hard to define and may create confusion and even arguments among your beneficiaries. For example, it is quite clear that an antique would be descriptive of an item which was from the era of the 19th century. However, it is not so clear that an item manufactured during the 1950’s is an antique. The search for definition may well lead your beneficiaries to the courthouse.

Mr. Brislin’s hounding was not entirely in vain – the court did award him the value of sleigh bells sold at auction ($143.75), ruling that the bells were appropriate for fitting on horses, and therefore constituted “tack.” Let’s hope Mr. Brislin’s paltry award didn’t leave him saddled with a large legal bill.

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