“Issue” is a legal word often used in wills regarding estate distribution
Language can be confusing. Words like ‘issue’ and ‘children’, may be thought of in one way by some, but be interpreted differently by others, see graphic.
The problems may not arise until the will-maker has passed away; leaving the question what did they really mean? This article is about the meaning of issue in wills.
Key Points “Issue” is a legal term meaning all of a person’s lineal descendants, including but not limited to their children. This difference is important in interpreting distribution and substitution clauses in wills. Take care when using the words “children” and “issue” in a will and seek professional advice.
“Issue” has a legal meaning
“Issue” has a wider meaning than just “children”. It is a technical legal term meaning all of a person’s lineal descendants, including their children, (see graphic below). In state and territory succession legislation “issue” appears in provisions dealing with the construction of wills and intestacy, and in some property legislation.
Leaving a gift to “issue” in a will can therefore produce different outcomes as to who inherits compared to leaving it to just “children”.
Meaning of “children” – its usual or ordinary dictionary meaning
The meaning of “children” hardly needs mentioning but are those direct offspring from their parents, that is the first generation. This is the ordinary meaning of “children” and is that usually applied by a court if it is required to interpret a will – unless the language used in the will makes it clear the will-maker meant something different, referred to as a ‘contrary intention’.1 But this needs to be very clear, and this can be done by defining the word in the will itself. If there is more than one word needing definition, it may be worth setting out their intended meanings in a mini ‘dictionary’ to the will, not a common occurrence.
Whether “issue” means “children” or “descendants”
Sometimes the word “issue” is used in a will in such a way that executors find it difficult to work out what the deceased person actually intended at the time they made their will. Executors then may feel it necessary, depending on the circumstances of the case, to approach the court to interpret the will. This causes extra expense and delay in administering the estate.
In one such case the High Court found “issue” had been used in the will a number of times. In one part of the will it covered remoter descendants but in another the context showed only “children” were intended, and in other parts its meaning was doubtful.2
Similarly in another case “issue” was found to mean all descendants (its legal meaning) in one part, but in another the testator’s words implied it was restricted to “children” only.3
The High Court has said that “issue” in wills has a clear legal meaning: “it means descendants or progeny”; it means children and includes all lineal descendants of every degree.4 “Issue” implies successive generations of parent and child relationships. It is not limited to “children” alone, although it may include them along with remoter descendants.
Statutory rules now deal with the construction of the provisions in wills making dispositions to issue, and how they are to operate.5 The situation when a beneficiary who is issue of the will-maker has predeceased the will-maker is addressed, and how requirements to survive with issue should be interpreted. The legislation also says that where there is a contrary intention in the will, the statutory rules may not apply.
Keeping it in the family
“Children” and “issue” are about classifying family relations into particular groups for passing on an inheritance by will. A person making a gift to their issue is showing they want to continue to ‘keep it in the family’, among blood relations, and away from those related by marriage (by affinity). As time passes, the issue of a person may potentially contain more individuals than their children, although not all may be living when the will-maker dies. In working out the distribution of the gift to the group, a question will then be did any of those leave children or issue themselves? Distributing an inheritance among a group of descendants can be done in basically two ways – read this article on Distributing a deceased estate – about per stirpes and per capita for more information.
The last thing anyone wants is expensive court proceedings causing stress and delay, to resolve uncertainty on what the will-maker intended. A word used in a will should convey the same meaning throughout, the case law says.
Step-children, adopted children and illegitimate children
As the “issue” of a person are those with the same blood line step-children are normally excluded, unless specifically named to be included.
Adoption legislation makes adopted children the children of the adoptive parents and no longer a child of its natural parents. Status of Children legislation everywhere makes illegitimate children the same in law as legitimate children. Interpreting the words “child” or “children” in a will includes these children.
Take care when using the words “children’ and “issue” and seek professional legal advice. Care is needed in choice of words to achieve flexibility and intentions. Check that the terms and language in your will say what you mean without raising potential interpretation questions.
1. G. E. Dal Pont & K F Mackie, Law of Succession, 2013.
2. Matthews v Williams (1941) 65 CLR 639.
3. Buick v Equity Trustees Executors and Agency Co. Ltd. (1957) 97 CLR 599.
4. Matthews v Williams (1941) 65 CLR 639, Buick v Equity Trustees Executors and Agency Co. Ltd. (1957) 97 CLR 599.
5. See Division 2 of the Succession Act 2006 (NSW) for example.
7 January 2014, updated 29 August 2017
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