Ohio Ag Law Blog -- Is your will clear? Tips for minimizing ambiguities

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, Agricultural and Resource Law Program

Have you ever sent an email or text message that seemed perfectly clear to you, but the recipient read it differently than you had intended?  It happens all the time in everyday life.  We know what we mean in our head, but the message we send contains ambiguities.  While we can hopefully fix ambiguities in an email or text message quickly, wills can present a different story. 

Once a person has passed away, fixing an ambiguity in a will is not easy because the best person to ask about intent cannot be called to testify.  Unfortunately, many families learn about the problems posed by ambiguities the hard way.

Take a recent example from Mahoning County.  In April, an Ohio appellate court upheld a probate court’s decision on how to distribute the assets of a Salem area farmer (“the farmer”).  This happened five years after the farmer passed away, and after two appeals of his estate.  He had a will, but it contained an ambiguity that resulted in years of litigation and delayed closure. 

His will made one specific bequest, and the rest of his property would go into a general pot for his named beneficiaries to divide among themselves as they or the executor saw fit.  The specific bequest read, “I give, devise, and bequeath to my brother […], the real estate at […] together with all contents of said real estate, if owned by me at the time of my death.”  The court had no problem with the real estate because the will provided an address; however, what did the will mean by “all contents of said real estate”?

At the time of the farmer’s death, the real estate contained a residence, family heirlooms, valuables, household goods, farm equipment, and vehicles.  The brother argued that the specific bequest included farm equipment and vehicles because of their physical presence on the real estate.  The general beneficiaries disagreed, believing that the bequest applied to pieces of personal property like heirlooms within the house.  Looking only at the will, the probate court agreed with the general beneficiaries.  The brother appealed the decision.

The appellate court viewed “all contents of said real estate” as ambiguous, and sent the case back to the probate court to re-examine the will.  The law generally disfavors testimony about what a decedent intended because the law assumes that the will provides the best evidence of what the decedent wanted.  When a court finds an ambiguity in a will, it may consider evidence beyond the will, such as testimony or other documents; however, the law considers this evidence less authoritative because it is not directly from the decedent.

After the first appeal, the brother and attorney who drafted the farmer’s will testified in probate court about conversations with the farmer before he passed away.  The brother claimed that conversations with his brother about ideas to grow the farm meant that the farm equipment should go to him; however, the attorney claimed that the farmer intended only for the brother to receive family heirlooms within the house.  The court believed the farmer’s attorney, and again decided that the specific bequest did not include the equipment.

For a second time, the brother appealed the probate court’s decision.  This time the appellate court was satisfied with the probate court’s actions and upheld the probate court’s interpretation of the will.  Click HERE to read the court’s opinion, which is cited as Bogar v. Baker, 2019-Ohio-1762 (7th Dist.).

It took the family in the Bogar case five years to have a legal determination of what their loved one meant in his will.  One clause resulted in lots of costly litigation, not to mention the stresses on the family.

No family wants a contentious probate.  Losing a loved one is hard enough without having to go to court to fully litigate the contents of a will.  Fortunately, this is a problem that can be avoided, or at least minimized, with an effective plan. 

Here are some tips to minimize ambiguities in your will:

  • Identify who you want to have specific pieces of your real and personal property.  For personal items such as family heirlooms, antiques, and art, you may leave a directive that names specifically which person receives what items.
  • Read through your will.  Does it make sense to you?  Does it sound like what you want to happen?
  • Consider showing your will to your executor and ask what he or she thinks your will says.  How would the executor carry out your will if you were gone today?  If he or she says something that you did not intend, you can still fix your will to more clearly align it with your wishes.
  • If you are concerned about beneficiaries challenging your will, you can include a no-contest clause that gives the executor final authority to interpret how to distribute your estate and penalize beneficiaries who challenge that distribution.  When included in a will, these clauses often prevent a beneficiary who challenges a will from receiving any property from the estate.

These tips do not guarantee a challenge-free probate process, but can help make your will as clear as possible.  If a question about your intent would still arise, having a couple of witnesses who can attest to your wishes will help the court get as close to your wishes as possible.  However, this requires you to tell each of these people the same thing and in a clear manner.  If you make any changes, you need to communicate that to your confidants.

Stay tuned in the next couple of months for new resources from our team about estate and business transition planning.  Until then, take a moment to review your estate plan!

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