Principles of interpretation of wills – What are the testator’s intentions

Principles of interpretation of wills – What are the testator’s intentions
18 Jul 2023

There is a maxim that ‘Where there’s a will there’s a relative’’. What happens when a relative who has been left out of the will, challenges it, or disputes a particular clause?

According to legal cases, the court’s role is to understand and fulfil the testator’s intentions as stated in the will, as long as it doesn’t contradict the law. The court uses a method called the “armchair approach,” where they put themselves in the testator’s position and consider all relevant facts and circumstances known to the testator when making the will.

When interpreting a will, the court focuses on determining the testator’s expressed intention from the language used in the document. They may also consider external facts and circumstances, but only to the extent that they help identify the subject or object of a disposition. Evidence that contradicts or alters the clear intention of the testator as reflected in the will is generally not admissible. The court’s objective is to understand the testator’s intention as expressed in the will, rather than speculating on what the testator might have meant.

The interpretative principles described in a landmark case, Natal Joint Municipal Pension Fund v Endumeni Municipality, emphasize the process of attributing meaning to the words used in a document. When interpreting any document, including a will, the court considers the language used in the context of the entire document, the ordinary rules of grammar and syntax, the purpose of the provision, and the background of the document’s creation.

In summary, the key principle in interpreting a will is to give effect to the testator’s wishes. Regardless of how clumsily worded a will may be, the court aims to understand the true intention of the testator from the language used in the document, ensuring that the testator’s wishes are carried out.

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(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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