Drafting and administering multiple wills can be challenging. There is no shortage of potential pitfalls that can derail an otherwise well devised estate plan. Inadvertent revocation of the primary will, conflicts between multiple sets of Estate Trustees (“Trustee”), and limited liability protection for the Trustee of the non-probated will are just a few of the difficulties sometimes encountered. However, one of the most challenging aspects is determining from where the taxes will be paid. Tax apportionment can complicate the estate plan for the Testator and drafter early on in the process; or afterwards,  as the Trustee is left to interpret the directions (or lack thereof) in both wills.

For instance, two carefully drafted wills which seek to distribute the assets evenly among the Testator’s children can be significantly altered if the tax apportionment clauses do not reflect this intent. Imagine that one child receives real property under the primary will and the other receives privately owned shares of an equivalent value under the secondary will. If the income tax is payable solely from the assets of the primary will, one child may no longer receive an equal value of the estate; contrary to what the Testator intended.

There is some debate on whether the distinction between a one or two estate model can help determine tax apportionment issues. The question is whether the Testator has created two distinct estates or one estate that is governed by two documents?   Clare Sullivan suggests the latter; however,  Martin Rochwerg and Leela Hemmings advocate for the two estate model. They describe dual wills as dividing the estate into a primary and secondary estate. This distinction may have tax liability implications when the wills do not contain any tax apportionment clauses whatsoever. When the issue is one of interpretation, the answer is a much simpler one.

In interpreting tax apportionment questions, it all comes down to the Testator’s intent. The interpretation of wills is based on the armchair rule that seeks to place oneself in the mindset of the testator. The same approach is applied to interpreting from where the taxes will be paid when the wills are unclear. In other words, a close examination of both the primary and secondary wills themselves will determine where the Testator intended the tax to be paid from. External factors such as the sophistication of the testator may also be considered when interpreting the documents. If the wills are altogether silent, the default tax rules will apply.

From a practical perspective, this means that the issue of tax liability should always be stated in unequivocal terms in the wills. The Trustee, in administering the estate, should also never blindly assume that the tax is payable out of the primary will. They should carefully read the documents before making this determination and if it is unclear, an application to the court for interpretation is an available recourse.

Thank you for reading.

Suzana Popovic-Montag