When leaving real estate to someone under a trust or last will and testament, it’s important to describe the property in precise enough detail so as to avoid conflicting interpretations. California courts try to construct wills and trusts strictly in conformance with the maker’s wishes. The clearer your wishes, the easier it will be for a court to determine them-and, ideally, the less chance anyone will seek a judge’s interpretation in the first place.
Smith v. Smith
Here’s a recent example-a case from Alabama-where imprecise language in a will spurred litigation between family members. The deceased in this case is Billy Ernest Smith, a horse trainer, who married his second wife Elizabeth in 1996. Smith had two adult children from a prior marriage. When Smith died in 2009, his will gave Elizabeth Smith a life estate in his “house and the one acre of land on which same is situated.” This meant she could continue to live in the house until she left voluntarily, died or remarried. A separate paragraph in the will also allowed Elizabeth to have “her pick of all my horses.”
Smith’s children and Elizabeth Smith disagreed over whether the life estate in the residence included the use of the barn and horse pens surrounding the house. The will itself only referred to “one acre of land,” but Smith’s total property was much greater. Nor did the will define specific boundaries for the one acre. That meant a probate judge had to make a determination.
The court ultimately ruled the “one acre of land” included the barn, even though it resulted in an “odd-shaped parcel.” Based on all the available evidence, the probate judge concluded Billy Smith intended for his wife to have use of the barn for the horses he left her. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals said the judge acted well within his discretion to make such a determination. The appeals court, however, did reverse the trial court’s decision to award Elizabeth Smith the horse pens near the residence. While the trial court could define the “one acre” awarded in the will to include the barn, it could not do so to include the horse pens, because that would give her more property than her husband stated.
Always Be Clear
If you plan to dispose of real property through a will or trust, it’s important you define the exact boundaries of any such gift, especially if you intend to divide a single property between multiple persons. A good practice is to include the language of any deed or other existing instrument that define a property’s borders. Never leave it to your heirs-or a probate judge-to guess what you meant.
Estate planning is not simply a matter of signing a will. It’s a process that involves taking inventory of exactly what you own. In undertaking this process, it’s important to work with a qualified California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.