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Ambiguity is in the Eye of the Beholder

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Using computer software, Joanne Click wrote a will in which she gave her residuary estate to “the surviving members in order of succession.” What did she mean? Who gets her estate? The case, known as Click v. Click, hinged on whether her words were ambiguous. One court said they were ambiguous. Another said they weren’t. How would you rule?

Mrs. Click had two sons, Steven and Frank, who both had children of their own. Frank died several years before Mrs. Click wrote her will. Steven submitted affidavits from several of Mrs. Click’s friends stating that she meant to give her entire estate to Steven and that her relationship with Frank’s children was strained at best.

Frank’s children, however, said the affidavits must be ignored, pointing to a well-established rule that a will must be interpreted without looking at any other evidence of intent, unless the will contains an ambiguity. They argued that no such ambiguity exists and that “the surviving members in order of succession” clearly required the estate to be divided among all the individuals named elsewhere in the will, including them.

Steven responded that “the surviving members in order of succession” should be interpreted as invoking the same rules of “succession” as apply to royalty, meaning that he was entitled to the entire estate as the sole surviving son. In the alternative, he argued that the will was ambiguous and that the court should thus take into consideration all the other evidence of his mother’s intent.

The Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County ruled that the will was unambiguous but that neither side had discerned the correct meaning. The Circuit Court concluded as a matter of law that Mrs. Click unambiguously directed that her estate should be distributed among all descendants per stirpes. Under this view of the case, Steven would take half, and Frank’s children would share the other half.

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that it had no idea what Mrs. Click meant. It pointed to the three different interpretations already proposed, and it even thought of a few more. The text, it concluded, was hopelessly ambiguous, and it sent the case back to the Circuit Court so that both sides could present their evidence as to Mrs. Click’s intent.

The lesson of this story may be a little ambiguous. Perhaps it’s that judges are human too, or perhaps it’s that a wise man knows himself to be ignorant. Either way, if you need an example of why will-writing software should be avoided, just point to Click.