Legal Memorandum: Interpretation of Provisions of a Will

Issue: Under Massachusetts law, does the administrator of an estate have authority to give caretakers of the deceased severance pay when such pay is not provided for in the will?

Area of Law: Estate Planning & Probate
Keywords: Rule of construction; Interpretation of a will; Ambiguous
Jurisdiction: Massachusetts
Cited Cases: 401 N.E.2d 881; 366 N.E.2d 761; 193 U.S. 411; 228 N.E.2d 732; 665 N.E.2d 29; 70 N.E.2d 175; 69 N.E.2d 466; 207 N.E.2d 913; 182 N.E.2d 823
Cited Statutes: Mass. Laws ch. 191, § 1A(2) (1994)
Date: 09/01/2000

           As a general rule, the intention of the testator governs the interpretation of a will; however, if the will is ambiguous, the court may turn to rules of construction for guidance.  B. M. C. Durfee Trust Co. v. Franzheim, 349 Mass. 335, 207 N.E.2d 913, 916 (1965); see also Mass. Laws ch. 191, § 1A(2) (1994) (the “intention of a testator as expressed in his will shall control the legal effect of his dispositions”).  The “fundamental object in the construction of a will is to ascertain the testator’s intention from the whole instrument, attributing due weight to all its language, considered in light of the circumstances known to the testator at the time of its execution, and to give effect to that intent unless some positive rule of law forbids.”  Shawmut Bank v. Buckley, 422 Mass. 706, 665 N.E.2d 29, 32 (1996) (citations omitted); accord Gustafson v. Svenson, 373 Mass. 273, 366 N.E.2d 761, 762 (1977); Mazzola v. Myers, 363 Mass. 625, 296 N.E.2d 481, 488 (1973); Merrimack Valley Nat’l Bank v. Grant, 353 Mass. 145, 228 N.E.2d 732, 734 (1967); Fitts v. Powell, 307 Mass. 449, 30 N.E.2d 397, 399 (1940). 

The general rule of construction cited above is generally used by courts only to aid in the interpretation of ambiguous phrases.  For example, in Shawmut Bank, the court was asked to construe a phrase in a will (“any amendments thereto”) which would have […]

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