Massachusetts Appeals Court Decision Demonstrates The Need for Specificity in a Residuary Clause

Wills sometimes include a residuary clause to help cover items in the estate that were not specifically bequeathed. These remaining possessions and property are dealt with after the other gifts have been dispersed. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently dealt with questions surrounding a residuary clause in a recent case (No. 16-P-715). The residuary clause in this lawsuit left “any monies remaining” in the estate to the testator’s live-in romantic partner. The executor of her estate and the partner both claimed that she meant for her one-half interest in a property shared with her brother to go to the partner. The brother’s estate claimed that since she did not devise her interest in this real property, the property passed through intestate succession to her now-deceased brother, her sole heir.

The central legal question hinged on whether or not “monies” included real property. The testator’s partner drafted her will by using a model provided to him. The testator executed it approximately six weeks before her death. The property in question was the testator’s childhood home. Her brother lived there with their mother until the mother’s death and then resided there the rest of his life. In her will, she chose, for unknown reasons, to exclude any mention of this property. Her will did include funeral arrangements, investments, a cash gift to a creative arts center, a yearly gift of $8,000 to her brother (who was alive at the time of her death) from a trust fund of $150,000, a gift of $150,000 to her partner, and several specific monetary gifts to charities and individuals. Property like her car, books, manuscripts, and personal possessions were also left to her partner. Real property was also mentioned in her will. Her share of the home bought with her partner was left to her partner, and a Cape Cod property owned with her brother was left to a couple who was to take possession after the life estate granted to her brother.

The Massachusetts appellate court first observed the history of residuary clauses to see if “monies” should be read to include real property. The executor and partner argued that the broader definition from Black’s Law Dictionary should apply, which is interchangeable with the term “wealth.” Wealth traditionally would include different types of commodities, including land and anything that can be easily bought and sold. However, the court pointed out the definition used by the executor and partner was actually a secondary definition. The primary definition focused on currency and excluded notes, bonds, proof of debt, and real estate. The appellate court noted that Massachusetts case law rejects applying the broader definition of “monies” to residuary clauses.

The court felt that the default should be to read “money” as it is commonly understood, unless the will indicates that it should be read otherwise. Probate and appellate courts want to honor the intent of the testator, and they rely upon the language within the will to guide them. The court determined that the testator made specific bequests, which separated monetary gifts from real property gifts. The Appeals Court ultimately ruled that the testator was not referring to real property in her residuary clause and that reading the will in this way would not contradict the presumption against intestacy. Since there was no mention of the property in any sense, the court did not feel obligated to act on the will’s defect. The lower court’s ruling was affirmed.

The language of wills and other estate documents can be challenging to use and to understand. The Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan can help you construct a document to reflect your plans for your estate. Contact our office today at 508.822.6600 to learn what our lawyers can do for you.

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