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What Happens When an Equal Distribution of Property Is Not So Equal?

If you have multiple children, you may wish to structure your estate plan so that each child receives an equal share of your property. Sometimes this is easier said than done-or written. If your will or trust contains conflicting or ambiguous language regarding the division of property, a probate court may have to attempt to determine what your actual intent was. This adds time and money to the cost of administering your estate, which ultimately reduces the amount of any gift left to your children.

Estate of Ellis

Here is a recent example from Iowa. In 2012, a longtime married couple passed away within a couple weeks of one another. They left three surviving adult children. According to each of their wills, upon both of their deaths, the couple left several parcels of real estate to their children. The will contained specific descriptions and estimated acreage for each gift.

The problem was that the descriptions did not match the acreage. The couple clearly intended to leave each child about 210 acres of property. But following the actual property descriptions, one child would receive 259 acres, another would receive 239, and the third just 140.

The executor of the estates asked the probate court to “construe and interpret the wills” such that each child would actually receive an equal amount of property. The court agreed. One child-the one who would take 259 acres if the will were construed according to the property descriptions-understandably appealed. But the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with the probate court. The appeals court said the wills were ambiguous-because the property descriptions did not match the stated acreage amounts-and the probate court properly resolved the matter by following the clearly manifested intent of the deceased couple to divide their property among the children equally.

Make Sure Your Will Reflects Your Intentions

This is an Iowa case and a California court might resolve the same situation differently. However, even California probate courts look to the intent of a person making a will when attempting to resolve any ambiguity or contradiction in the precise wording. The best way to avoid such issues is to double-check any property distributions to make sure they match your intended distribution pattern. Furthermore, you should periodically revise and update your will to account for changes in your assets.

Before making any decisions about your will, you should always consult with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can advise you on the best way to avoid potential conflicts and ambiguity. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you need assistance.

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