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Trust and Will Interpretation: Give some effect to every expression

Language the English tricky can be. Many a Trust or Will has been litigated over the use of language. While the words may seem perfectly clear when written, circumstances can change, unforeseen events can occur, and misunderstandings can arise that lead to ambiguity in how a Trust or Will should be interpreted and enforced.

Luckily, the California Probate Code provides a series of rules on how Trust and Will documents must be interpreted when language problems arise. One of the most-used rules is Section 21120, which requires that the Court give some effect to every expression in a document. What does this mean?

When there is conflicting language that could be subject to multiple interpretations, the Court is supposed to favor the interpretation that gives some meaning to every part rather than an interpretation that would ignore some language.

For example, let’s say a Trust provides for an outright gift of a house to the Settlor’s two children. But a separate paragraph gives the Settlor’s spouse the right to live in the house. Legally, these can be viewed as conflicting provisions. Do the children receive the house now, how long can spouse live in the house, who pays the taxes and insurance?

It is left to the Court to figure this all out. The Court will then employ the Trust interpretation rules and will try to give meaning to both expressions.

On the one had, the children where gifted the house, on the other hand, spouse was given the right to live there. To give each of these expressions meaning requires some compromise between the two.

Perhaps the court allows the spouse to live in the house for a set time, or requires her to pay rent. Some solution must be fashioned. What the court cannot do is simply ignore one of the paragraphs. That can only happen if there is no ability to interpret the document any other way.

The law presumes that the Settlor used the words and expressions he or she chose for a reason. Those expressions must be implemented by the Court to the extent possible. Thus, some meaning must be given to every expression. To do otherwise, could render the Settlor’s intent meaningless. Although, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to discern the Settlor’s intent, that intent must be implemented to the extent it can be.