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Rules of Construction for Wills and Trusts Explained

Article written by Illinois & Iowa Attorney Kevin O'Flaherty
Updated on
January 20, 2020

In this article, we explain the Illinois rules of construction for wills and trusts.  We answer the following questions: 

  • How do Illinois courts interpret ambiguous language in wills and trusts?
  • What does the term “rules of construction” mean with respect to wills and trusts?
  • What are the rules of construction for wills and trusts in Illinois?

How do Illinois courts interpret ambiguous language in wills and trusts? 

If an Illinois will or trust contains language that is vague or subject to multiple interpretations, interested parties can file a lawsuit called a “construction action” to request that a court determine how the ambiguous language in the will or trust should be construed.  

The court’s purpose is to attempt to determine the creator’s (“the settlor’s”) intent at the time that the will or trust was executed.  Courts are required to look to only the language of the document unless the language is ambiguous, at which point the parties can introduce extrinsic evidence to prove what the settlor intended.  If extrinsic evidence is insufficient to determine the settlor’s intentions, then the court applies rules of construction to determine the result of the lawsuit.  

For more, check out our article: What Happens if a Will or Trust is Ambiguous? 

What does the term “rules of construction” mean with respect to wills and trusts?

Rules of construction are a set of rules that courts follow to decide disputes regarding the intended meaning of ambiguous language in a will or a trust.  They are based on precedent set in previous cases.  They are presumptions that the court uses to determine what an ordinary settlor would mean in specific cases of ambiguous language.  If the court can determine the actual intent of the settlor, the rules of construction will not be applied.  

What are the rules of construction for wills and trusts in Illinois?

Illinois courts follow these presumptions when interpreting an ambiguous will or trust:

  • Illinois courts presume that the creator of a will or trust intended to use the will or trust to dispose of all of his or her property and not leave part of his or her estate to pass to heirs at law outside of the terms of the will or trust. This essentially means that courts interpret wills and trusts so as to avoid intestacy.  
  • Illinois courts presume that the settlor intended the terms of his or her will or trust to be valid and legal.  Courts will interpret ambiguous sections in such a way as to maintain the legality of the document rather than favoring an interpretation that would render the document invalid.  
  • If two unambiguous clauses in a will or trust conflict with one another, courts will favor the clause that occurs later in the document.  
  • If specific provisions of a will or trust conflict with general language in the document, teh specific language will be favored.  
  • Courts will favor an interpretation that benefits heirs of the settlor over parties that are not closely related to the settlor.  
  • Courts favor interpretations that result in heirs of equal degree (such as groups of siblings, or groups of children) being treated equally. 
  • Courts presume that words have the same meaning throughout the document. 
  • Courts presume that words have their ordinary meaning. 
  • Courts will disregard punctuation if it makes the meaning of the will or trust more obvious.

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