Wills, Trusts, and Estates


In interpreting last wills and testaments, most states follow the plain meaning and no reformation rules.

Plain Meaning

Under the plain meaning rule, no extrinsic evidence is allowed to disturb the plain meaning of wills.

Extrinsic evidence can only be admitted to resolve ambiguities in the will. (Not mistakes)


Ambiguities can be either patent or latent.

Patent Ambiguity

A patent ambiguity is one evident from the face. E.g., if two places have different dollar amounts, that is a patent ambiguity.

External evidence is admissible to resolve patent ambiguities under modern law, but not under common law.

Latent Ambiguity

A latent ambiguity is one that only arises when applied to the facts. E.g., it says to give it to someone but there are two people by that name.

Latent ambiguities can be between exact fits or partial fits.


Equivocation is a latent ambiguity where two or more people exactly fit the description in the will.

Personal Usage

Personal usage is an exception to the plain meaning rule. It allows extrinsic evidence to show the true meaning of terms the testator habitually used in an idiosyncratic manner.

E.g., if you have a friend named Jeanilee, but you exclusively and oddly call her "Vicky" in your folly, extrinsic evidence would be admitted to resolve who Vicky is.

Extrinsic evidence will be admitted to resolve latent ambiguities under both common law and modern law.

Latent ambiguities can also be partial fits. If no one person fits the description, but multiple partially fit it, extrinsic evidence will also be allowed to resolve the ambiguity.

No Reformation

Under the no reformation rule, courts cannot correct mistakes in wills. They will follow what the will says even if it is not what the testator wanted.

Despite still following this rule, modern courts often try to construe things as ambiguities to allow them to fix mistakes.

Then some modern courts, like California, will not follow the no reformation rule, and will just do whatever they think is the best if there is clear and convincing evidence of a mistake.

If devised stock is split between execution and death, most courts give the split stocks, not just the number of shares in the will.

  • Many courts also give dividends along with bequeathed stocks.

A will can be conditional, but explaining a reason for making a will does not make it conditional under the modern majority rule.