A lot of planning goes into preparing a Last Will and Testament.
The testator agonizes over who is going to take what asset and when. The testator thinks through who should serve as the executor and what powers they should have. Then the estate planning attorney carefully crafts the legal document. And great care is taken to ensure that the Will is executed with all the required formalities.
When the testator dies, the family looks at the Will for the first time in a long time.
When reading the Will with fresh eyes, the family notices that the headings included in the Will conflict with the terms of the Will. What do they do?
The court addresses this in Hall v. Estate of Hall, No. 03-19-00943-CV, 2021 WL 5220481 (Tex. App.—Austin 2021).
Facts & Procedural History
In this case, executor applied for probate of the Will. The executor realized that there were some questions about the terminology used in the Will.
The executor filed an application for declaratory judgment “as to who shall take what properties under Article 3 of the decedent’s will.” The declaratory judgment action is a type of probate dispute where one party asks the court to decide what the Will means.
The reason why he had to do this is the terms of the will conflicted with the headings included in the Will.
The Terms of the Will
Article 3 was entitled “Remaining Property.”
Section 3.5 of the Will addresses only the property remaining after the gifts bestowed to other beneficiaries in Sections 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3:
Section 3.5– Disposition if My Wife Survives Me. If my wife survives me[,] I give my Remaining Property to my wife.
This was the definition of “remaining property” that was to be given to the decedent’s surviving spouse.
If Article 3.1 and 3.3 gave everything away, there would be nothing left to give to the surviving spouse in Article 3.5.
There was another article, Article 2, that provided for specific testamentary gifts.
The Surviving Spouse’s Position
The surviving spouse contended that Sections 3.1 and 3.3 were not triggered because she survived the decedent pursuant to Section 3.5. She argued that “Remaining Property” includes all property left over after the bequests found in Article 2 and it all passes to her pursuant to Article 3.5.
She further argued that if decedent intended to bestow the property listed in Articles 3.1 and 3.3 to the beneficiaries in those Articles, he would have drafted them under Article 2 for the specific testamentary gifts.
The surviving spouse argued that the Article headings confirmed that all assets listed in Article 3 are “Remaining Property” that are to be left to her.
Headings in Wills
What is a heading in a Will? Headings are similar to the big word “Headings in Wills” listed above in this article.
They briefly describe the subject matter of the substance following it. Headings can help readers quickly locate relevant provisions. However, headings generally do not have any substantive meaning or interpretative value when it comes to legal documents.
A standard headings clause is commonly included in a legal document providing that headings do not have any substantive meaning or interpretable value. Under this clause, when the substance of a provision is inconsistent with the heading, the heading must be ignored in determining the parties’ rights and obligations.
The Will in this case had such a clause. Section 9.9 said:
Headings. The headings employed in this Will are for reference purposes only and shall not in any way affect the meaning or interpretation of the provisions of this Will.
This negates the surviving spouse’s arguments in this case.
The Headings are Not Controlling
The appeals court determined that the surviving spouse’s interpretation creates internal conflicts within the Will and renders some language superfluous. For instance, the surviving spouse’s argument that the decedent’s intent can be determined by the headings is directly invalidated by Section 9.9 (the headings clause).
Further, contrary to the surviving spouse’s arguments, Articles 3.1 and 3.3 do not provide they are effective only if the surviving spouse predeceases the decedent.
Finally, the Court noted that the surviving spouse’s construction would create irreconcilable conflicts between sections.
In short, the court confirmed that headings in Wills are just references but have no other legal significance or meaning.