What Happens When A Will Is Ambiguous?
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What happens when a will is ambiguous? This may be a common question that can crop up during the post mortem probate of the testator’s last will and testament. Hence, the succession law has seen this possibilities, thus, providing for a remedy there for.

When we are confused, our mental state is definitely impacted. It disrupts our mental ability to process thoughts properly, leaving us frustrated and, worse, overthinking of unnecessary scenarios. What if the source of your confusion is said to be a mistake or error in a legal document, rather than just your emotions?

The aforementioned legal document contains ambiguity and may cover property and estate worth millions of dollars. Is there room for error and ambiguity when it comes to last will and testament?

What happens when a will is ambiguous?

Rectifying errors, even minor typos, in legal documents is not a walk in the park. It is much more difficult to resolve when the document’s creator is no longer alive to clarify his true intentions. The main focus of this article is on resolving ambiguities in the last will and testament. The author will discuss when and what kind of ambiguity exists in a last will and testament in the first part.

Any provision in the will that could have more than one reasonable interpretation may be ambiguous and difficult to interpret for an executor or a court. The list of possible ambiguities is endless, but a simple example of ambiguity for illustration purposes is when someone leaves a Mitsubishi Mirage car to his brother-in-law but later discovers that the creator of the will has three brothers in laws. This ambiguity is either latent or intrinsic.

Latent or Intrinsic Ambiguity in the last will and testament

When does a ‘latent or intrinsic ambiguity’ exist? According to Article 789 of Civil Code, the first clause of the provision describes a latent or intrinsic ambiguity.[1]Paras, Edgardo L. Civil Code of the Philippines Annotated, 16th ed.

xxx When there is an imperfect description, or when no person or property exactly answers the description, mistakes and omissions must be corrected, if the error appears from the context of the will or from extrinsic evidence, excluding the oral declarations of the testator as to his intention;… xxx[2]Article 789, Civil Code of the Philippines

This type of ambiguity does not appear on the face of the will and can only be discovered through extrinsic evidence. This ambiguity does not exist in the will itself, which is clear and obvious. The doubt arises solely as a result of events outside of the will.

Latent or intrinsic ambiguity is one which cannot be seen from the reading of the will but which appears only upon consideration of extrinsic circumstances. The latent or intrinsic ambiguity may rise in the following scenario:

First is when there is an incomplete description of the heir, legatee, or devisee, as in the first example above. In that case, the testator failed to specify which of his three brothers in law he was referring to; there were ambiguous designations from the testator’s will. Because of this ambiguity, it is critical to clearly identify the individuals who will inherit the property and administer the estate. This could also refer to inaccurate or outdated information.

Second is when there is an imperfect description of the gift being given.[3]Paras, Edgardo L. Civil Code of the Philippines Annotated, 16th ed. As an example, a will may bequeath possessions that the decedent no longer owns. It could also take the form of an incorrect address being written for a real property owned by the decedent.

Third is when only one recipient is designated but it turns out that there are two or more who fit. A classic example is the case of Gilmer vs. Stone:[4]120 U.S. 586 [1887]

A resident of Irish Grove, Illinois, died there and left a will in which he bequeathed his library to the Presbyterian Church of Irish Grove, $500 for the construction of another Presbyterian church in Illinois, and $50 to be paid on the minister’s salary of the Presbyterian Church of Irish Grove for 1884, among other bequests.

He bequeathed and devised the remainder of his estate “to be equally divided between the board of foreign and the board of home missions.”

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America has a corporate “Board of Foreign Missions” and a corporate “Board of Home Missions,” but it was agreed by counsel that several other religious bodies in the United States have similar organizations for the same purposes.

Held: That there was a latent ambiguity in the will respecting the object of the residuary gift, which ambiguity could be removed by extrinsic evidence, and that the evidence introduced on that point, taken in connection with the other bequests in the will for the benefit of Presbyterian churches, showed that the testator, in making the residuary gift, had in his mind the Board of Foreign Missions and the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, of which he was a member and an officer.[5]Ibid.

Patent or Extrinsic ambiguity in the last will and testament

Another example of ambiguity is a patent or extrinsic ambiguity. Patent ambiguity is one which appears upon the face of the instrument. According to Article 789, its second clause describes a patent or extrinsic ambiguity:

xxx …and when an uncertainty arises upon the face of the will, as to the application of any of its provisions, the testator’s intention is to be ascertained from the words of the will, taking into consideration the circumstances under which it was made, excluding such oral declarations. xxx[6]Supra., Article 789, Civil Code

A patent ambiguity or extrinsic ambiguity occurs when the language of the document has more than one meaning and it is visible on the face of the document.

A simple illustration is when the testator write in his will that he institute to some of his seven sisters and two cousins two Mitsubishi Mirage cars.

Another example that demonstrates extrinsic ambiguity is when there is a provision of a decedent’s will names beneficiaries but it fails to mention the gift being made to them.

Similar instance is when there are two provisions of the same trust where it makes the same gift of real property to two separate beneficiaries.

The above mentioned illustrations are considered patent ambiguities because the ambiguity is very apparent on the face of the document or the will.

How ambiguities in the last will and testament may be cured?

The aim of this article is to be able to provide resolutions as supplied by the Civil Code in case any of the two (latent and patent) ambiguities arises.

In the case of the first clause of Article 789, or when there is an intrinsic or latent ambiguity, the procedure for resolving the confusion is to examine the will itself as well as the extrinsic evidence. However, only WRITTEN declarations may be used as extrinsic evidence, not ‘alleged’ oral declarations.

Article 789 expressly prohibits oral declarations from being used as extrinsic evidence because they could lead to fraud, confusion, and unfairness to the deceased man whose words could be distorted or perjured.

The second clause of Article 789, or when an extrinsic of patent ambiguity is involved, the strategy to cure the ambiguity is the same also as to what stated for curing latent ambiguity. The new Civil code provides no difference in the curing of latent or patent ambiguities. In cases of patent or extrinsic ambiguities, we may look into the words of the will and the circumstances under which the will was made.

The “golden rules of construction” require us to respect the testator’s intention when making the will and the determination thereof. When uncertainty arises on the face of the Will as to the application of one or several of its provisions, Article 789 states that the testators’ intention is to be ascertained from the words of the wills, taking into account the circumstances under which it was made. This means that, with regard to the Will as a whole, the court will give effect to the testator’s intention as determined by the language used.

Application of the rule in latent ambiguity

To be able to fully grasp how to deal with these ambiguities, we will deal with the following problem.

If Arian left her house to his friend Jun Santos in her will. There were, however, four Jun Santos among her friends. While the will was being written, Arian stated orally that the Jun Santos to whom he was referring was a teacher in Manila; however, a written memorandum of agreement found in her file stated that the house would be given to Jun Santos, an attorney living in Paranaque City.

In the example given, the kind of ambiguity we are dealing with is considered a latent or intrinsic ambiguity. The doubt arises not because it was found in the will or instrument itself but because of circumstances outside the will.

Now, the oral declaration made by Arian that she intends to give to Jun Santos, the teacher in Manila, her house cannot and  should not be admitted as an extrinsic evidence. This is because of the express provision of the law regarding oral declarations should be excluded as extrinsic evidence. Additionally, this is prohibited in order to discourage perjury.

On the question where should the house be given provided all the circumstances, we answer that the house should be given to Jun Santos, the attorney living in Paranaque City. It is because of the written memorandum by the testator himself which is admissible as extrinsic evidence.

Significance of Testator’s intention

When uncertainty on application of any provision in the face of the will, it should be interpreted according to testator’s intention. The testator’s intention is to be ascertained from the words of the Will, taking into consideration the circumstances under which it was made. Such construction as will sustain and uphold the Will in all its parts must be adopted.

In the case of Rabadilla vs. Court of Appeals,[7]G.R. No. 113725, June 29, 2000 it explained the characteristics of a Last Will and Testament. According to the case, a will is a personal, solemn, revocable and free act by which a person disposes of his property, to take effect after his death.

Suffice it to state that a Will is a personal, solemn, revocable and free act by which a person disposes of his property, to take effect after his death. Since the Will expresses the manner in which a person intends how his properties be disposed, the wishes and desires of the testator must be strictly followed. Thus, a Will cannot be the subject of a compromise agreement which would thereby defeat the very purpose of making a Will.”[8]Ibid.

Since the Will expresses the manner in which a person intends how his properties be disposed, the wishes and desires of the testator must be strictly followed. Thus, a Will cannot be the subject of a compromise agreement which would thereby defeat the very purpose of making a Will.[9]Ibid.

Relevant jurisprudence

For better understanding, the abovementioned case involves a will of a certain Alleja Belleza. Thus:

In this case, Dr. Jorge Rabadilla, in a codicil of Aleja Belleza, was instituted devisee of Lot No. 1392 with an area of 511,855 square meters with the obligation to deliver 100 piculs of sugar to herein private respondent every year during the latter’s lifetime.[10]Ibid.

The codicil provides that the obligation is imposed not only on the instituted heir but also to his successors-in-interest and that in case of failure to deliver, private respondent shall seize the property and turn it over to the testatrix’s “near descendants.”[11]Ibid.

Dr. Rabadilla died and was survived by his wife and children, one of whom is herein petitioner. Private respondent, alleging failure of the heirs to comply with their obligation, filed a complaint with the RTC[12]Regional Trial Court praying for the reconveyance of the subject property to the surviving heirs of the testatrix.[13]Ibid.

During the pre-trial, a compromise agreement was concluded between the parties wherein the lessee of the property assumed the delivery of 100 piculs of sugar to private respondent. However, only partial delivery was made. Thereafter, the trial court dismissed the complaint for lack of cause of action.[14]Ibid.

The Court of Appeals, on appeal, reversed the decision and held that the institution of Dr. Rabadilla is in the nature of a modal institution and a cause of action in favor of private respondent arose when petitioner failed to comply with their obligation under the codicil, and in ordering the reversion of Lot 1392 to the estate of testatrix.[15]Ibid.

The issue here is whether the heirs of Dr. Rabadilla were under an obligation to deliver 100 piculs of sugar to Maria Marlena as per the Codicil in Aleja Belleza’s Will.[16]Ibid. The court ruled in affirmative.

In the said Codicil, Aleja Belleza devised Lot No. 1392 to Dr. Rabadilla, subject to the condition that 100 piculs of sugar would be delivered to Maria Marlena every year.[17]Ibid.

Upon the death of Dr. Rabadilla, his compulsory heirs succeeded to his rights and title over the said property, and they also assumed his (decedent’s) obligation to deliver the fruits of the lot involved to Maria Marlena.[18]Ibid.

Such obligation of the instituted heir reciprocally corresponds to the right of Maria Marlena over the usufruct, the fulfillment or performance of which is now being demanded by the latter through the institution of the case at bar.[19]Ibid.

Therefore, Maria Marlena has a cause of action against the Rabadillas and the trial court erred in dismissing her complaint.

In the interpretation of Wills, when an uncertainty arises on the face of the Will, as to the application of any of its provisions, the testator’s intention is to be ascertained from the words of the Will, taking into consideration the circumstances under which it was made. Such construction as will sustain and uphold the Will in all its parts must be adopted.[20]Ibid.

Subject Codicil provides that the instituted heir is under obligation to deliver One Hundred (100) piculs of sugar yearly to Marlena Belleza Coscuella. Such obligation is imposed on the instituted heir, Dr. Jorge Rabadilla, his heirs, and their buyer, lessee, or mortgagee should they sell, lease, mortgage or otherwise negotiate the property involved.[21]Ibid.

The Codicil further provides that in the event that the obligation to deliver the sugar is not respected, Marlena Belleza Coscuella shall seize the property and turn it over to the testatrix’s near descendants. The non-performance of the said obligation is thus with the sanction of seizure of the property and reversion thereof to the testatrix’s near descendants.[22]Ibid.

Since the said obligation is clearly imposed by the testatrix, not only on the instituted heir but also on his successors-in-interest, the sanction imposed by the testatrix in case of non-fulfillment of said obligation should equally apply to the instituted heir and his successors-in-interest.[23]Ibid.

The case at bar clearly provides that, in case of uncertainty over a will, the intention of the testator must be looked upon and strictly followed.

At the end of the day, it is extremely frustrating for the loved ones of decedents to have to deal with the consequences of ambiguous language in a decedent’s will or trust while they are grieving their loss; however, failing to act could be detrimental.

References

References
1 Paras, Edgardo L. Civil Code of the Philippines Annotated, 16th ed.
2 Article 789, Civil Code of the Philippines
3 Paras, Edgardo L. Civil Code of the Philippines Annotated, 16th ed.
4 120 U.S. 586 [1887]
5 Ibid.
6 Supra., Article 789, Civil Code
7 G.R. No. 113725, June 29, 2000
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Regional Trial Court
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
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