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Myth #3: Wills are the best estate-planning tool.

A Bewildering Bequest

Perplexing wording can spark legal conflict among family members.

Wills often provide for specific bequests or devises, ensuring that the last wishes of the testator are carried out consistent with their intentions. But ambiguous and unclear language in one will’s residuary clause recently had to be sorted out by the Virginia Supreme Court. The case, Feeney v. Feeney, highlights how bringing in an experienced estate attorney early on may help to avoid this kind of issue.

James Feeney had two sons from a prior marriage, Sean and James. Feeney’s wife at the time of his passing was Marjorie (not the mother of Sean and James). The residuary clause provided that the residue of Feeney’s estate would generally pass to his wife Marjorie. However, the residuary clause went on to provide that Feeney desired such property to be used for Marjorie’s health and support, and also for health and support of his son Sean. The residuary clause also provided that upon Marjorie’s passing, such residuary property would pass to Sean in trust. Additionally, the residuary clause went on to provide that Feeney desired to keep his and Marjorie’s accounts separate so that upon both of their passings, any assets remaining from Feeney’s estate would pass to their respective children.

After Feeney’s passing, litigation ensued. James filed suit seeking an interpretation of the residuary clause language—specifically seeking a holding that it granted Marjorie a life estate in the residuary (as opposed to full rights to dispose of the residuary property as she saw fit), an order removing Marjorie as trustee and executor and an order requiring her to pay back any and all assets that she wrongfully used. James also sought a court order that the residuary ought to be eventually split between Sean and himself. Sean filed an answer mostly agreeing with James’s request for relief. Marjorie argued that the residuary clause gave her absolute power to dispose of the residuary estate. The matter was decided on summary judgment based on agreement between the parties that the residuary clause was unambiguous.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Marjorie, found that the will left the residue of the estate to Marjorie, and specifically held that the residuary clause didn’t create a life estate in Marjorie. Sean and James objected to the trial court’s decision for various reasons on a variety of grounds. In the interests of clarity and brevity, only the issue of the interpretation of the residuary clause will be addressed herein.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court analyzed the residuary clause’s meaning anew. Specifically, the Court stated that its goal was to analyze the language of the will made by the testator and not speculate as to its meaning. The Court stated that it must first look to the plain language of the will to determine its meaning. Additionally, the Court reasoned that the entire will and all its contents should be examined and given effect if possible. The Court also noted that courts generally construe deeds and wills as passing the largest estate which the language is capable of passing unless there’s a clear contrary intent to do otherwise.

The Court held that while Feeney didn’t expressly indicate any intent to convey a life estate to Marjorie, the will as a whole indicated a clear intent to restrict Marjorie’s use of the residuary property. For instance, the Court pointed out that the residuary clause contemplated that property would be left over after Marjorie’s passing. The will provided that any residuary property left over after Marjorie’s passing would pass to Sean in trust. Additionally, the residuary clause provided that Feeney’s accounts and Marjorie’s accounts ought to be kept separate so that whatever remained of Feeney’s estate would pass to his children. The Court reasoned that the restrictions placed on Marjorie by the terms of the residuary clause were incongruous with an absolute power of disposition. Ultimately, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision, and held that Marjorie possessed merely a life estate in the residuary estate, as opposed to full rights to the residuary property.

Prevent Unnecessary Conflicts

The Feeney case provides additional clarification on the law in Virginia regarding interpretation of provisions of trusts and wills. It illustrates the reality that language in wills and trusts can sometimes mean something different than one may think. The case also underscores how retaining the assistance of an experienced estate attorney early on, before drawing up a will, can reduce the chances of conflict later. If not prevented, disputes relating to will and trust interpretation typically necessitate the assistance of an experienced estate litigator and can lead to unnecessary expenses and conflict among family members.

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