Austin Case Provides Estate Planning Lessons

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently saw the case of Austin v. Roesler and Campbell, which provides some valuable reminders about what to do (and not do) while estate planning. 

The Facts Behind the Case

The case involved a woman who executed her will in 1977, which directed that following the woman’s death the entirety of her property is given to her husband. The will also contains provisions that direct the distribution of assets in case the woman’s husband predeceased her. In this situation, the woman stated that all of her property be transferred to her children. In case any of the woman’s children pass away before her, the woman’s will states that the assets should go to the surviving heirs. 

At the time the woman passed away in 2019, the woman’s husband and one daughter had already passed away. The woman was survived by a grandson and one daughter. Probate of the woman’s estate then began. The daughter argued that the grandson was excluded from the will due to a statement in the will, but the grandson disagreed. The estate then filed a petition to address the meaning of “residual heirs”.  The estate’s petition clarified that the phrase, “residual heirs”, be interpreted to include the grandson as the woman’s surviving child or could be read to exclude the grandson and only to the woman’s surviving children.

The Court’s Decision

The circuit court held a hearing. The court reviewed the will of the deceased woman and her husband. The court also heard testimonies from both parties. The court determined that the phrase “residual heirs” refers to the deceased woman’s surviving children and does not refer to the man in question, who was the grandson of the deceased woman’s child who had passed away before her. The grandchild then appealed. The appellate court ultimately affirmed this decision.

The Value of Precise Language While Estate Planning

Utilizing exact language while estate planning is vital to achieving your goals. Not being clear while estate planning greatly increases the chances that disputes will arise involving your estate.

For example, various interpretations exist for the phrase “residual heirs”. One interpretation is that this phrase only includes the deceased woman’s children, while the phrase can also be interpreted to include the woman’s children.

The time as well as additional costs and emotional hardships of this litigation, however, could have been avoided by including language that made the woman’s intent clear. If you plan on creating a will, trust, or any other type of estate planning tool, you should remember to utilize unambiguous language to make sure that your wishes are carried out. If you expect that one or multiple parties who will be impacted by your estate plan will view it as unfair, you should make sure to explain the rationale behind your estate plan to them. 

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