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Construction of California Trusts and Wills

When Trust or Will terms cannot be discerned by the way in which they were written, the court must follow the interpretation rules set out in the California Probate Code. One of those rules is found at Section 21121, which requires the Court to read the Trust or will document as a consistent whole. What does that mean?

The court must read the entire document and apply its provisions as if the Settlor intended the document to be consistent throughout. This also allows the court to explain an ambiguous section of the Trust by looking at a different section of the Trust and apply a consistent intent to the entire document.

For example, let’s say a Trust gives a gift to son, and then says if son does not survive the gift “passes to children.” It does not specify the children and it does not state whether the terms refers to the Settlor’s other children or the son’s children (the grandchildren of the Settlor).

In the subsequent Trust sections, similar gifts are made to Settlors other three kids and each one says if the child does not survive, the gift passes to the “child’s children (the Settlor’s grandchildren).”

We have an ambiguity as to son, but the gifts to the other three children are not ambiguous. In order to interpret the correct distribution of son’s share, the Court must read the Trust document as a consistent whole and the Court can use the language found under the other gifts to interpret the correct distribution of son’s share. Since every other gift passes to the child’s children if the child does not survive, son’s gift should pass to his children if son does not survive the Settlor.

This pattern allows the Trust to be read and applied as a consistent whole. The law presumes that the Settlor would not want to treat one part of the Trust document differently from another section of the Trust document.

It may seem like an odd rule at first, but it provides some framework that the court can apply to figure out an ambiguous Trust.