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Interpreting the language of wills

Despite the encouragement coming from estate planning experts both in Los Angeles and throughout the rest of the U.S., many still refuse to address the important issues of estate planning. Indeed, according to information collected by Gallup, only 44 percent of American adults have a will. The reasons behind this collective reticence may vary, yet some might fear the possibility of contention arising amongst their beneficiaries over the decision they make regarding the dispersal of their estate. In many cases, even in those situations where one has created a will, disagreements can arise as to its interpretation. 

When a will is read, the one who wrote it (or at least authorized its creation) is not around to offer clarity as to their intent. Thus, it is left up to the interpretation of those who are party to it. Many may claim that the wording is too vague as to specify intent, or that the language used carried a different meaning for the testator. In such instances, one can see why guidance is needed in interpreting the language of wills. 

Section 21120 of the California Probate Code attempts to provide that. It states significance will be assigned to any interpretation of an estate planning instrument that does not lend any of the provisions contained therein inoperative. In other words, as long as one's interpretation would not allow for the administration of an estate's assets, it will be considered. However, when comparing the different interpretations of particular language or a particular provision contained in a will, preference is given to that which will prevent intestacy (or state having to designate which beneficiary receives estate property). 

Maintaining transparency during the estate planning process may help avoid instances of misinterpretation, as can using clear and concise language that is apparent in its intent. 

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