People end up in court all the time because of a mistake or ambiguity in a document; one party interpreted a phrase as meaning one thing, another interpreted it differently. The court needs to decide which interpretation is correct. Or the document itself may be inconsistent, and it falls to the court to decide what was intended.
The need to interpret (and sometimes reform) a document often happens in the context of a contract dispute. But it also occurs with wills and trusts. How do Ohio courts address these mistakes or ambiguities?
To answer this question, we have to talk about the kinds of mistakes and ambiguities that arise. First, there are what lawyers call “patent ambiguities.” These are ambiguities that are obvious just from reading the document. For example, “I bequeath to my brother Daniel the sum of fifty thousand dollars ($5,000)” is patently ambiguous. Does the person making the will (the testator) mean the amount that is spelled out, or the numerical amount, which is different?
Then there are so-called “latent ambiguities.” These are statements that make sense on their face, but the existence of other facts creates the ambiguity. “I bequeath to my brother Daniel fifty thousand dollars ($50,000)” seems unambiguous. But what if the testator has only a brother named David, but a nephew named Daniel? While the writing seems plain, the circumstances make the identity of the intended beneficiary unclear.
Lastly, there is the situation of wills that are unambiguous, but mistaken: they do not say what the testator meant them to say. Each of these are dealt with somewhat differently under the law.
If the will itself is unclear for some reason, the natural impulse is to try to figure out what the testator meant by using evidence outside of the will, or what lawyers call “extrinsic evidence.” In Ohio, if there are no patent or latent ambiguities in a will, a court will not consider extrinsic evidence to bring about a result other than what the language of the will requires.
If there is a patent ambiguity in the will, the court will not accept oral testimony regarding the testator’s intent. But extrinsic evidence can be presented regarding the testator’s circumstances and other relevant facts, in an effort to resolve the ambiguity.
If the will contains a latent ambiguity, the court will admit extrinsic evidence to help interpret the language of the will and resolve the ambiguity. Using the example above of David/Daniel, the court might admit evidence that the testator had a long-standing feud with his brother David, but that his nephew Daniel had lived with him and cared for him faithfully in his declining years.
You might think that the exact same rules apply to ambiguities in wills and trusts in Ohio, but you would be wrong. Trusts are governed by the Ohio Trust Code, which has specific language about reformation and interpretation of trusts, even if there is no ambiguity. Section 5804.14 of the Ohio Revised Code says:
“The court may reform the terms of a trust, even if they are unambiguous, to conform the terms to the settlor's intention if it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that both the settlor's intent and the terms of the trust were affected by a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement.”
Prior to the enactment of the OTC, the rules about extrinsic evidence that applied to wills also applied to trusts. Interestingly, this language from the OTC probably refers to trusts that are created in a will, called testamentary trusts.
What this means is that if a will creating a testamentary trust contains unambiguous terms that happen to be mistaken, an Ohio court could admit extrinsic evidence to discern the testator’s true intentions. The burden of proof is fairly high—”clear and convincing evidence”—but if an interested party had such evidence, it could cause the trust to be interpreted differently. Note that in order for such a reformation to take place, the mistake would have to affect both the intentions of the settlor (creator of the trust) and the terms of the trust.
Ambiguities and mistakes, whether in wills or trusts, can cause confusion and conflict for beneficiaries, as well as costly and avoidable will contests. We encourage our clients to review their estate planning documents on a regular basis. While we are diligent about clear and accurate drafting, a common scenario is that the client’s needs or circumstances have changed. In that case, the estate planning document may appear ambiguous or mistaken.
For instance, a testator may have referred in a will to a bank account that no longer exists, or to an intended heir who has died. It would be important to update the will to remove that reference, and, if necessary, make a different bequest to bring about the intended result.
If it has been a while since you have reviewed your will or trust, we invite you to contact our law office to make sure your estate planning documents are accurate and that they still meet your needs.