What if an Executor Questions the Meaning of an Order in a Will?

by Erika Johansen

An executor is legally obligated to carry out the deceased's wishes expressed in his will. But from time to time, the executor may not be sure exactly what the language in the will means. If an executor is in doubt about the meaning of one or more provisions, he may petition the probate court for help in interpretation. The probate court has the final authority to interpret the provisions in a will.

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Probate Court's Role

The probate court is the final authority in determining whether a will is valid and how the will is enforced. While the executor is responsible for dealing with the estate and carrying out the terms of the will, he's subject to the oversight of the probate court in all of these actions. If the executor is unclear on any of the terms of the will or how to execute them, he can seek assistance from the probate court. Such situations can be avoided by using clear, unambiguous language and explaining all potentially vague language while creating a will.

Petitioning the Court

Language in the will may not be clear to the executor in light of his knowledge. For instance, the will grants the deceased's house to his "immediate family," but the deceased left not only a current family, but estranged children from a prior marriage. An executor in doubt of the meaning of such language in the will can petition the probate court for an answer. The executor may try to interpret the language herself, but this can leave her open to trouble later if beneficiaries, parties with an interest in the will, feel that she made a mistake in the interpretation. Therefore, it may be safer for an executor to seek help from the probate court, rather than trying to guess at the deceased's intentions based on the language.

Will Interpretation Rules

If the executor asks the probate court for help in interpretation, the court's interpretation will depend on the law of the state where the court is located. Most states follow the "plain meaning rule," which holds that if the language of the will seems clear and unambiguous, the court will use the plain meaning of the language - common and logical interpretation and use of the words - to decide the deceased's intent. However, if the language is unclear, the court will generally consider evidence outside of the will to resolve the ambiguity. Some jurisdictions also give the probate court the right to reform, or change, the language in the will to reflect the clear intent of the deceased.

Beneficiary Rights

An executor is legally obligated to administer the estate just as the will stipulates and a beneficiary always has the right to ask the probate court to scrutinize the executor's actions. If the beneficiary believes the executor has breached his duty -- for instance, by distributing the deceased's assets in a way the beneficiary feels doesn't represent the will's instructions -- the beneficiary can petition the probate court to investigate or remove the executor. Upon the beneficiary's petition, the court may also scrutinize the executor's interpretation of the will for mistakes. Small, honest errors may result in the court removing the executor, but in extraordinary cases, such as fraud, the court may hold the executor personally liable, meaning the executor's personal assets can be used to satisfy the loss to an injured party.