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Why Wording Is Essential In Your Will And Estate Plan

An increasing number of people are starting to recognize the reality and importance of estate planning and ensuring that they have a will in place before their death. However, what many people don't realize is that the way the will is worded is just as important as its existence. Sometimes the smallest things can result in having your estate distributed differently than you might have intended. Here is a look at one of the many details that can affect how your will is interpreted and what you need to know about it.

The Significance Of The Phrase "Personal Property"

For most people, "personal property" likely seems like a pretty common and straightforward term to use in a will or estate plan. On the surface, it certainly is. However, when you consider the nuances of estate law, that single phrase can leave your intentions open to interpretation. In fact, the courts actually have established some standards for interpreting those intentions, but without an estate and trust attorney to help you understand it, you may inadvertently write your will in a way that it can be interpreted differently than you actually meant it.

The Many Definitions Of Personal Property

Part of the problem with the use of "personal property" as a general phrase in your will or estate plan is the fact that, legally, personal property can mean many things. It's important that you understand the different interpretations of the term before you use it so that you can ensure clarity in your estate plan and your will.

In most cases, when someone references their personal property in a will or estate plan, they are typically referring to their possessions. Things like furniture, personal items, collectibles, and similar items are often what's meant by personal property.

However, the phrase can be more ambiguous than that. In some situations, personal property can be intended to reference not only the objects that someone owns but also the physical property as well. This can include not only vehicles but also homes and land. Sometimes, it can be even more broadly interpreted to include bank accounts, retirement funds, and any other assets, too.

Given the multiple interpretations of the phrase, it's important to ensure that you are clear in your use of "personal property" when you write your will or your estate plan. However, if there are any questions about it, there are some basic guidelines that the court may use.

The Court's Interpretation Of Personal Property

If the meaning of personal property is called into question when your will is read, the case may be presented in court for a judge to help determine what the intention was behind the term. Since this isn't a completely uncommon occurrence, there are some general guidelines that the court will employ when trying to determine the meaning.

First, the court will consider whether or not your will and estate plan were written by an attorney. When these documents are written by an attorney, it is generally accepted that personal property refers to possessions such as collectibles, jewelry, and furniture.

Additionally, the court will evaluate the context of the statement. If the will includes specific dispensation for collectibles, clothing, furniture, and other belongings, it may be assumed that personal property refers to the actual physical land and homes, or properties, owned. 

The courts will also look at the rest of the content to assess the meaning. If the will declares that specific things are to be left to certain people with the "remainder of personal property" being left to someone else or the will states that "all of the personal property" is to be left to someone, the courts will typically find that any real estate holdings, including land and buildings, be included in the "personal property" clause.

As you can see, the wording of your will and estate plan is important. Work with an estates and trusts attorney to ensure that your estate is dispensed the way that you want it to be.