A will that says someone gets property till she dies means she gets it forever.“(T)ill she dies” means forever.

Inheritance cases sometimes present unusual problems. A man left a holographic will. The entire will read “Last Will & testament Debbie gets everything till she dies. Being of sound mind & this is my w. last will & testament. I leave to my Wife Daphne Craigen all p. real & personal property. 12-17-99 Dalton Craigen.” Everyone involved agreed that “Debbie” and “Daphne” referred to the same person,e.g., testator’s wife.

The question: Does “till she dies” mean that the testator was giving his wife a life estate in his property – meaning that when she died, the property would go to his heirs instead of her’s? Or did the will give his wife full title to his property so that when the wife died, it would go under her will or to her heirs?

The court ruled that the wife received full title to the property and not just a life estate. It based its ruling on rules of construction for wills. The courts don’t use rules of construction when the will is unambiguous. The court held that this will was ambiguous and that resort to the rules of construction was necessary. The court said that the following rules of construction indicated that the testator’s intention was to give his wife full title:

  1. When a will has been drafted by a layperson who is not shown to be familiar with the technical meanings of certain words, courts do not place “‘too great emphasis on the precise meaning of the language used where the will is the product of one not familiar with legal terms, or not trained in their use.”
  2. Instead, in arriving at the meaning intended by the layman-testator, courts refer to the popular meaning of the words the testator chose to use. In summary, the testator’s intent, as gathered from the will as a whole, prevails against a technical meaning that might be given to certain words or phrases, unless the testator intended to use the word or phrase in the technical sense.
  3. A very strong presumption arises that when a person makes a will, the testator intended a complete disposition of his property. “[T]he very purpose of a will is to make such provisions that the testator will not die intestate.”
  4. Texas law also favors the vesting of estates at the earliest possible period, and courts will not construe a remainder as contingent when it can reasonably be taken as vested.
  5. When a will provides that upon a certain contingency the estate given shall pass to another, “the law favors the first taker and will construe the words of the will to grant to the first taker the greatest estate which they, by a fair construction in harmony with the will as a whole, are capable of passing.”
  6. The court also noticed that the testator’s children were not mentioned in the will. If the will was construed as creating a life estate, the children, although not mentioned, would inherit everything. The court held that the testator probably did not intend that to happen.

Pearls of wisdom: The people who you want to get your estate may or may not get it depending on how your will is worded. To make sure that the correct people get your estate, you should carefully prepare your will so that there is no ambiguity. 305 S.W.3d 825.

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Copyright by Robert Ray a Texas inheritance attorney. The foregoing information is general in nature and does not apply to every fact situation. If you are concerned about inheritance laws, inheritance rights, have a family inheritance dispute, a property dispute or want information about contesting a will and need an inheritance lawyer, we can help. We handle a select few cases on a contingency basis. Please go to our main site www.texasinheritance.com and use the contact form to contact us today. We are Texas inheritance lawyers and would love to learn about your case. There is no fee for the initial consultation. #ContestingAWill.