Have you ever been in a conversation and had someone say “you know what I mean” and you say “sure” only, it becomes clear later that you had no idea what they meant? It should go without saying that precision is essential in legal drafting. The importance of clarity cannot be overstated. When you decide to do your own wordsmithing, untrained, it can have unintended consequences. Take, for example, the word “heir.” It’s a word frequently bandied about but the legal meaning is this: the person(s) entitled to a decedent’s property when there is no will. What’s more, a decedent’s heirs might surprise you.
Let’s say Betty drafts her own will and leaves everything to “my son or if he’s deceased his heirs.” What Betty probably expects is that if her son is deceased at her death, then his children will inherit her estate. But, if her son is married and has all of his children of his marriage, then in Virginia his surviving spouse is his only heir. What Betty meant was to leave things in the bloodline, but the effect is that her grandchildren have been left out entirely. Of course, depending on the age of the children, the relationship with their mother, etc. this might be a non-issue, but what if it’s not.
At this point you might be saying “can’t the grandchildren just tell the court what Betty wanted and fix it?” The answer is no. Okay, the answer generally is no. This is because the rule regarding wills is that no outside evidence can be offered to the court in interpreting the document. Also, the court assumes that the person drafting the will used the terms in the will with the understanding of their meaning.
The good news is that you’re reading this. If you’ve drafted your own will, you have the opportunity to avoid the world of woes of dear Betty.