Karen J. Sneddon: Dead Men (and Women) Should Tell Tales: Narrative, Intent, and the Construction of Wills (March 30, 2021)

Karen J. Sneddon, of Mercer Law School, has made available for download her article, “Dead Men (and Women) Should Tell Tales: Narrative, Intent, and the Construction of Wills”, published in the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel Law Journal, volume 46. The abstract is as follows:

Intent is a foundational principle that is referenced in many varied aspects of succession. This article will focus on the role of intent in will construction proceedings where intent is referred to as the “touchstone” and “pole star.” When an issue arises as to the meaning of a provision in a will admitted to probate, the probate court must undertake a construction proceeding. This article posits that a will naturally forms a narrative that courts use when interpreting and construing the language of the will. This natural narrative form and tendency for courts to reference narrative during construction proceedings can be more effectively leveraged by the will-drafter in a manner that is consistent with succession’s intent-serving policies. When the drafter approaches the will as a narrative and uses narrative techniques to inform the customization of what may be one of the oldest-forms of legal documents, the resulting document becomes more meaningful for the testator, the beneficiaries, the personal representative, and, if needed, the court. To illustrate, this article presents standard will construction cases and revises the problematic testamentary language using narrative-based drafting techniques.

This intent-effectuating approach to drafting promotes the ultimate implementation of the testator’s intent, especially when a construction proceeding is initiated by an interested person. The construction proceeding, after all, seek to determine and give effect to the testator’s intent. The narrative-based approach to drafting will support the court’s inquiry by providing more context and more meaning to the language of the will. This customization refers to the deliberate sequencing of provisions, accurately enhancing the description of the relationships and property, and even including a statement of purpose. This article acknowledges the potential dangers raised by using narrative-based drafting techniques. But, as this article stresses, narrative-based drafting does not refer to the inclusion of language that injects uncertainty and confusion in testamentary instruments. Instead, narrative-based drafting brings the person, the personality, and the personal into wills. Testators should tell tales.  

To see the full article, click: “Dead Men (and Women) Should Tell Tales: Narrative, Intent, and the Construction of Wills” by Karen J. Sneddon

Posted by Marin Larkin, Associate Editor, Wealth Strategies Journal.

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