February 4, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 35

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Ambiguities in a Will – The Doctrine of Probable Intent

In rare instances, during the administration of an estate, there might arise an ambiguity within the language of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament as to how the decedent wished to dispose of his property pursuant to his Will. Should that occur and the beneficiaries are unable to resolve that issue, a Court will be tasked with determining what the true intentions of the decedent were with regard to the disposition of his estate. In a recent appellate division case, the appellate division reviewed a trial court’s application of the Doctrine of Probable Intent, where the court found that an ambiguity existed within the language of a Will.

In this matter, the Chancery judge had found the Will contained an ambiguity concerning the disposition of the decedent’s estate, applied the doctrine of probable intent, and thereafter, held that decedent’s son’s interpretation of the Will made no sense. On appeal, the disgruntled son argued that the trial court had misapplied the doctrine of probable intent, and further, had erred by excluding conversations from evidence that the decedent had with his attorney and his daughter after executing the Will. In denying the son’s appeal, the appellate Court found that the Chancery judge’s findings were supported by sound credibility determinations, that trial judge did not abuse his discretion by excluding his sister’s testimony, and further that there was no evidence that the decedent’s intent was what the son had argued. As such, the son’s attempt to introduce evidence outside of the terms of the Will to interpret the document was denied by the appellate court, as the appellate court concluded that the trial court’s determination of the probable intent of the decedent was correct.

The doctrine of probable intent is rarely applicable during the administration of the estate, or even during a Will contest. Nonetheless, it is important for a potential contestant, or party who was defending a Will against a challenge, to carefully review the terms of a Will to determine whether an ambiguity exists in the document which could affect the ultimate disposition of the estate. The application of the doctrine of probable intent is different for every case and is extremely fact sensitive. As such, this doctrine is something that must be considered during the course of administering an estate or in the context of a Will contest.

COPYRIGHT © 2023, STARK & STARKNational Law Review, Volume XII, Number 284
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About this Author

Paul Norris, Stark and Stark Law, Probate Litigation Lawyer, Construction Attorney, New Jersey
Shareholder

Paul W. Norris is a Shareholder and a member of the Firm’s Litigation Group. Mr. Norris’ areas of practice include: Probate Litigation; Construction Litigation; Commercial Litigation; and Criminal and Municipal Court representation. Mr. Norris has an extensive and growing Probate Litigation practice, which concerns either defending, or initiating Will contests on behalf of beneficiaries and purported beneficiaries of an Estate as well as related litigation. He has both prosecuted and defended actions successfully in this regard, and also serves as a Court appointed...

609-895-7325
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