Holograph Wills – A Recent Interpretation Case
In Kirst Estate (Re), the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta had before it an interpretation case involving a holograph will of William Kirst (“K”). The will was a short handwritten document that divided the estate equally amongst K’s surviving children, with some qualifying language allowing Whitehorn (“W”), one of K’s children, to live in the family home. W had almost always lived in the home, which was the primary estate asset.
The phrase the Court was tasked with interpreting reads: “Whitehorn can live in the house for awhile, to be determined by Him and his brothers + sisters.”
The sole issue was the interpretation of the words “for awhile”.
The testimony of four of K’s children was considered (although ultimately of little assistance), with two of them believing K’s intention was that W remain in the house indefinitely, and the other two viewing their father’s intention as simply to permit W to stay in the home until he could get his affairs in order. As K discussed his estate with his children separately, each of them had his/her own understanding of K’s intentions. Notably, although K made the will in 1995, none of the kids had previously known about it or discussed its terms with K.
The Court cited and reviewed the following four general principles of interpretation recently set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal to assist in ascertaining K’s intention:
“First, a will must be interpreted to give effect to the intention of the testator. No other principle is more important than this one.
Second, a court must read the entire will, just the same way an adjudicator interpreting a contract or a statute must read the whole contract or statute.
Third, a court must assume that the testator intended the words in the will to have their ordinary meaning in the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.
Fourth, a court may canvas extrinsic evidence to ascertain the testator’s intention.”
The Court concluded that it could determine K’s intention by giving the words in his will their natural and ordinary meaning, and, in so doing, it was satisfied that the intention was to allow W to stay in the home subject to an enforceable condition that he and his siblings agree on how long he can continue to live there. The Court further found that as the siblings could not agree, the condition had not been fulfilled, such that W’s entitlement has ended.
The circumstances in this case are unfortunate, as the siblings had apparently been involved in protracted litigation since K’s death in 2010, including a dispute over the validity of the will. Although holograph wills can be helpful estate planning tools, I wonder if these same contentious circumstances would have developed if K had made his will with effective legal advice.
Thanks for reading,