Breaking out the dictionary to settle an inheritance dispute

Published 19 Oct 2017

Seeking professional guidance when you write a will is always recommended, as the slightest ambiguity in your estate planning can lead to inheritance disputes.

A recent case that went before NSW Supreme Court highlighted the issues that can arise when an individual fails to clarify parts of their will.

The judge even turned to the Oxford English Dictionary to help him make a decision. Let’s look at how the events unfolded.

Nephews argue over ‘Inherited Family Items’

The two plaintiffs in the case were the nephews of a woman who passed away in May 2015.

The deceased’s stepmother died just three months prior, leaving approximately $586,000 to her stepdaughter and a similar amount to her stepson – the plaintiffs’ father.

According to the Succession Act 2006, a beneficiary must survive a testator by at least 30 days in order to receive a legacy from the will. As the deceased survived her stepmother by a few months, she was due to receive her share of the estate.

In her own will, the plaintiffs’ aunt wrote that she wanted to leave her nephews her “Inherited Family Items”. The nephews believed this should include the $586,000 their aunt inherited from her stepmother.

A lesson in semantics

The plaintiffs’ defence team argued that the deceased’s interest in her stepmother’s estate should be characterised as an “item” based on a dictionary definition of the word.

“They contend that the term ‘item’ involves a concept of being separate or being different from other things, namely, something that can stand alone,” said Judge Arthur Emmett.

“Thus, they say, there is no reason why the term could not refer to an interest in a deceased estate.”

However, the judge argued that the construction of the will made this interpretation unlikely. The document stated that the executor should choose which nephew would receive a particular item if they couldn’t decide between themselves.

Judge Emmett claimed it is implausible that the deceased would select such an arbitrary method for distributing a valuable asset if she had meant for her stepmother’s legacy to be included.

Nephews miss out on legacy

The judge, after referring to his Oxford English Dictionary, ruled that “Inherited Family Items” should instead be understood to mean heirlooms, such as jewellery, furniture, collectibles and other household possessions.

As such, the nephews did not receive a share of the deceased’s stepmother’s estate, which will instead go to other individuals or charities named in the will.

Nevertheless, the case is a good example of the intricacies of inheritance disputes in NSW, where a claim can hinge on the interpretation of just a few words within a will.

If you are considering contesting a will, please contact Gerard Malouf & Partners Will Dispute Lawyers.

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