In this article, we answer the questions “what happens if a will or trust is ambiguous?” and “how do courts interpret ambiguous language in wills and trusts?”
A will or trust is ambiguous if reasonable people can differ regarding the meaning of the language and the difference in reasonable interpretations would lead to differing results. If a will or trust is ambiguous, then Illinois courts are empowered to interpret the creator’s intention in a court case called a construction action. Courts lack jurisdiction to interpret a will or trust unless there is an actual ambiguity.
In a construction action, the court interprets a will or trust in order to resolve ambiguities and achieve the purpose that the creator intended at the time that the document was executed. A hearing will be held at which parties are permitted to introduce extrinsic evidence regarding the creator’s intent.
Extrinsic evidence is evidence other than than the wording of the document. This may include the creator of the will or trust’s (“the settlor’s”) relationship to relevant parties, the state of the settlor’s assets at the time of execution of the document, or any other evidence that tends to shed light on which interpretation of the language in the document the settlor intended when creating the document.
Courts can only consider extrinsic evidence if there is an ambiguity in the language of the document. Courts will not construe a will or a trust without a legitimate ambiguity even if the parties disagree about the meaning or believe that the document leads to an unintended result.
Illinois courts used to distinguish between patent ambiguities and latent ambiguities in wills and trusts for the purpose of allowing extrinsic evidence. Patent ambiguities are problems with the language of the document that are obvious from a reading of the document. Latent ambiguities are ambiguities that only become evident when considering facts other than the plain language of the document. Courts no longer make this distinction in Illinois and will allow extrinsic evidence for both patent and latent ambiguities.
If extrinsic evidence is not sufficient to shed light on the settlor’s intent and resolve the ambiguity of the document, courts will apply the rules of construction to interpret the document. Rules of construction are a set of rules that courts follow to determine an outcome for specific types of ambiguous language based on case law precedent. For more on this, check out our article: Rules of Construction for Illinois Wills and Trusts.
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