Evidence in Will Interpretation
Wills can be complex, and sometimes interpreting the exact wishes of a Will-maker (testator) can be confusing. What is a beneficiary supposed to do when a clause in the Will is vague or ambiguous?
Consider the following scenario:
John Doe passes away in 2020. He leaves a Will that he executed in 2015. The Will states “Jane Doe has the sole, absolute right to occupy the property, as long as she pays all property taxes, fees, excluding the water bill, hydro, telephone and internet charges”.
Jane claims that John told her she did not need to pay the water bill, hydro, telephone, or the internet charges, whereas the trustee interprets the Will to say that Jane needs to pay all but the water bill.
In Court, can Jane rely on what John told her before his death, to claim that she does not need to pay for hydro, telephone, and internet? The short answer is “no”.
The Armchair Rule
Rule 14.05(3)(d) of the Rules of Civil Procedure, and Section 60 of the Trustee Act provides a mechanism for the Court to interpret an unclear clause in a Will to determine peoples’ rights under the Will.
When doing so, the general approach by a judge when interpreting a clause in a Will is to apply the “armchair rule”. This means the judge places themselves in the position of the testator when the will was made to determine the testator’s intention.
In doing so, the judge should look at the circumstances which existed when the testator made the Will and the Will as a whole, including the specific language used and the other provisions in the Will.
Indirect Extrinsic Evidence
To help the judge determine the testator’s intention the judge should consider indirect extrinsic evidence. Indirect extrinsic evidence is evidence that helps inform the surrounding circumstances at the time the testator made their Will. This includes things like the testator’s occupation, the testator’s relationship with their family, and who was friends with the testator. This evidence is used to help explain what is written in the Will.
In contrast, what is not allowed, even though it might seem to matter, is direct evidence. Direct evidence includes things like statements the testator made regarding their intention with their estate when they die; the testator’s handwritten notes directly stating what should happen with their property; and what the testator told their lawyer (and what the lawyer told the testator) about their Will.
This type of evidence is not generally allowed in interpretation applications because it would undermine the purpose of drafting a Will. Therefore, Jane cannot rely on the fact that John told her she did not have to pay the water, hydro, telephone, and internet charges.
Direct evidence will only be allowed when the part of the Will that is being interpreted could equally apply to two or more different people or things and the judge needs to determine who it applies to. This does not mean judges can use direct evidence when there is some confusion or difficulty in interpreting the Will, but rather, is reserved for when there are two equally logical ways of reading and applying a clause.
If you are interested in reading further, the 2018 case of Janicek v. Janicek deals with the application of evidence in Will interpretation.
The Estate Litigation team at Merovitz Potechin LLP has experience working with clients on Will interpretation matters. Contact our lawyers at 613-563-7544 if you have questions or to book a consultation.
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