Many will contests involve a challenge to the validity of a will, such as claims it did not meet formality requirements or that the testator lacked capacity or was subjected to undue influence. However, sometimes the primary dispute is how to interpret one or more provisions of a will. I find this to be most often the case when the will is not prepared by an experienced estate planing lawyer. Unfortunately, homemade wills often contain confusing, unclear, or outright contradictory provisions. Or a testator may have an excellent will drafted by a lawyer, only to make a homemade codicil that offers more confusion than clarity.
The procedure for having a court determine meaning of a legal document, such as a will, is through a declaratory judgment action. The court examines the document and makes a ruling as to the meaning of one or more provisions. Sometimes, the court will review evidence outside of the document if it finds the words used are unclear.
In some cases, there might be both a battle to determine if a will can be admitted to probate and a battle over what it means if it is admitted. Does a will have to be admitted to probate before a court can interpret a will’s provisions? No, according to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals in Estate of Rhoades. The court conceded that there was little detailed authority discussing whether a will must be admitted to probate before it becomes ripe for construction under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA). But the court found that Texas courts have construed wills under the UDJA before, during, and after admitting the will to probate.
The UDJA itself states that a person interested under a will “may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the instrument . . . and obtain a declaration of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder.” The UDJA is a statute designed to settle and afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status, and other legal relations. In some cases a fight over the underlying validity of a will might be effectively rendered of less importance, depending on how the will is interpreted.
Logically, it makes sense to determine if a will is valid before fighting over what it means. But in the trenches of litigation, it would often be an inefficient use of resources to litigate over factually intensive issues of capacity and undue influence before determining what the will actually means.
I will devote a later post, or three, to the legal principles Texas courts rely upon to interpret wills and trusts.