Legal Memorandum: Interpretation of Testamentary Instruments

Issue: What rules of construction apply to the interpretation of testamentary instruments?

Area of Law: Estate Planning & Probate
Keywords: Testamentary instruments; Rules of construction
Jurisdiction: California
Cited Cases: 444 P.2d 353; 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 865; 94 Cal. App. 4; 69 Cal. 2d 200; 70 Cal. Rptr. 561
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 05/01/2007

California Courts have established several fundamental rules of construction applicable to the interpretation of testamentary instruments.  In Estate of Kaila, 94 Cal. App. 4th 1122, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 865 (2001), for instance, the court explained that

[t]he paramount rule in the construction of wills, to which all other rules must yield, is that a will is to be construed according to the intention of the testator as expressed therein, and this intention must be given effect as far as possible.  The rule is imbedded in the Probate Code.  Its objective is to ascertain what the testator meant by the language he used. 

Id. at 1131, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 872 (citations omitted); see also Smith v. Caldwell, No. D038680 (Cal. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2002) (similarly explaining that “[i]n construing a trust instrument, the intent of the trustor prevails and it must be ascertained from the whole of the trust instrument, not just separate parts of it”) (unreported decision; citations omitted). 

In determining the testator’s intent, the entire context of the will must be examined in light of the surrounding circumstances.  Kaila, 94 Cal. App. 4th at 1131, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d at 872.  Thus, “[i]n order to determine initially whether the terms of any written instrument are clear, definite and free from ambiguity the court must examine the instrument in the light of the circumstances surrounding[ ] its execution so as to ascertain what the parties meant by the words used.”  […]

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