“My nephews and nieces” in Wills

20th August 2020

The High Court has recently clarified the construction and interpretation of Wills that refer to nephews and nieces in Wales v Dixon [2020] [2020] EWHC 1979 (CH).

The facts

The deceased’s Will stated that his residuary estate was left to “all of my nephew’s and niece’s children living at my death”. The question posed to the Court was whether the residuary estate was intended to go to the children of the deceased’s nephews and nieces by blood only, or those by blood and marriage.

Master Teverson referenced Lord Neuberger’s approach to the interpretation of contracts in Marley v Rawlings [2014]: “the meaning of the relevant words in light of their ordinary meaning, the overall purpose of the document, the facts known or assumed by the parties at the time…”, stating that this approach is just as appropriate in the context of interpreting Wills. Master Teverson also highlighted statute which provides that where language within a Will is ambiguous, evidence outside of the Will may be submitted to assist in determining the deceased’s intention.

On the facts, there was no evidence of the deceased intending to benefit only one nephew or niece. Similarly, the fact that one of the deceased’s nephews was appointed as Executor and Trustee of the deceased’s estate had no bearing on whether that nephew was intended to be a beneficiary.

The circumstances which did have bearing on the decision were as follows:

  • A marriage lasting 46 years between the deceased and his wife;
  • The previous Wills of the deceased and his wife both consistently named both members of their own family, and their spouse’s family, as beneficiaries to the residuary estate;
  • The deceased’s wife had passed prior to the deceased, and had left the entirety of her estate to the deceased;
  • The absence of evidence to suggest that the deceased intended to exclude his wife’s family from his Will; and
  • The continuing contact between the deceased and his wife’s family after her passing.

The Court determined that the intention was for the children of all nephews and nieces, by blood or marriage, to benefit from the Will.

Comment on "all of my nephew's and niece's children" in Wills and ambiguity

It is clear that the Courts are taking a wider, more commercial, approach to the interpretation of Wills where the language is ambiguous. Extrinsic evidence, such as communication between the deceased and potential beneficiaries, will be taken into account, as will previous Wills of relevant parties.

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