In construing words used in a will or codicil to decide what they mean, words must first be given their natural meaning and be considered in the context in which they are used and the will must be considered as a whole. The meaning given to a word in a previous case can be helpful but it is not conclusive and the same word may have a different meaning in different documents.
An interesting example of the rule that the meaning of words in a will must be gleaned from the context in which they are used is to be found in the case of Blech v. Blech which showed that a reference to a beneficiary surviving the testatrix did not necessarily imply that the beneficiary must be living at the date of the death of the testatrix. B created a trust for the children of her son R who survived her and attained at the age of 21 years and if more than one for them in equal shares. The court decided that, bearing in mind that it would be 17 years before the oldest of those children of R who were living at the date of B’s will reached the age of 21, B must have thought that R might have more children during that period. Consequently, it decided that B intended that two children who were born to R after B’s death and reached the stated age must be considered to have ‘survived’ her and should be allowed to share with the qualifying children born before her death.
Sometimes extrinsic evidence can be used to resolve uncertainty or an ambiguity or to show that the words had a special meaning for that particular testator, for example in one case there was ambiguity and dispute between the testator’s mother and his widow about the identity of the intended beneficiary when the testator had been in the habit of calling his wife ‘mum’.
After a change of gender has taken place and a Gender Recognition Certificate has been issued under the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 it will be recognised in relation to wills made after the Act so that for example, a transsexual brother will usually under a gift to the testator’s sister. However, under Section 18 of the Act a court has the power to make such orders as it considers appropriate and just in case of a person benefiting from a disposition of property as a result of the Act.
Jewellery includes unmounted precious stones but ‘personal jewellery’ is usually considered to mean jewellery which is mounted and ready to be worn.
‘Personal estate’, ‘my personal effects’, ‘my goods and chattels’ and ‘my belongings’
These words are usually taken to include all moveable items, but not freehold or leasehold property but ‘my estate’ or ‘my possessions’ is usually construed as meaning all the testator’s assets including non-moveable property.
‘Personal’ estate or ‘Personal’ chattels should not usually be construed to include items used for business purposes.
‘Month’ means calendar month unless lunar month or four weeks is specifically stated.
‘From’ a date does not include the day of the date.
The word ‘children’ in a will or codicil means children and does not include grandchildren or stepchildren, unless the will shows a contrary intention or unless the context or circumstances so require, for example if the testator had no children living at the date the will was made.
The law in relation to wills and devolution of estates on intestacy makes no distinction between adopted, legitimate and illegitimate children and a reference to children is taken to include them all, unless there is an indication to the contrary.
‘Issue’ and ‘descendants’
A gift to ‘issue’ or ‘descendants’ means that each of such people who are living at the date of death inherit an equal share unless the gift is stated to be to the issue or to the descendants ‘per stirpes’. If the gift is stated to be given per stirpes only the first generation of descendants inherit unless one of them had died before the testator, in which case his next generation of descendants inherit their deceased parent’s share equally between them. If a gift is given per stirpes, descendants do not compete with a living immediate ancestor; children do not compete with a parent if the parent is till alive.
‘Relations’ or ‘next of kin’
The words ‘relations’ or ‘next of kin’ will usually be taken to mean those who would inherit the estate if the deceased died intestate.