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Meaning of words in a will – resolving differences in a farmland context

The meaning of words chosen by a willmaker to leave a specific gift in a will may adequately express their intentions, at least to them at the time.  However sometimes matters connected with the gift may arise down the track during administration of the estate.

These may generate uncertainty for executors as to the right course of action when distributing the estate to the beneficiaries according to the deceased’s will. In a recent Western Australian case1 the executors sought directions from the Court concerning the interpretation of a clause disposing of farmland.

In this case probate had been granted to the executors entitling them to administer the estate. However differences in opinion between the executors and beneficiary arose as to the meaning of a clause in the will. 

The executors applied to the Court for directions on the questions arising from the different interpretations, more below.

Cattle on the property and monies found – part of the gift of farmland?

In the subject clause the deceased had made a specific gift (bequest) of farming land to his cousin:

“..including all plant and machinery thereon or any interest I have in the said real and personal property..

meaning of will, farm succession, farm inheritance, meaning of plant and equipment

At the date of death cattle were existing on the property.  Also found was money, an overdraft and money pre-paid for superphosphate.  The super had not been delivered. 

The issue to be resolved

Were these matters intended by the deceased to be part of the gift of farmland to his cousin or not? 

If not, they would fall into the residue (“leftover”) of his estate.

Different interpretations as to the meaning of the words used

The executors’ view was that the will referred to ‘all plant and machinery’ and was not intended to refer to any of the matters above. 

The cousin beneficiary (first defendant) argued that the reference to ‘real and personal property’ in the will was a reference to the farm as a working farm and included them.

Seeking directions from the Court

Executors are obliged to administer the estate according to the deceased’s will, and that the beneficiaries receive what they are entitled to. They can be personally liable to beneficiaries if they act improperly, but not if acting in accordance with a Court order or under the directions of the Court.

In Western Australia (and similar provisions in the other states and territories), legislation provides for executors, and administrators to apply to the Court ( the Supreme Court) to determine questions of law or interpretation, see section 45 of the Administration Act 1903 (WA):

(the) Court may settle all questions arising in administration..

This section gives the Court the power to make an order on “..any question arising in respect of any will or administration..”. The order is binding on all persons, but all those interested must be notified first.

In this case the Court said, the the different interpretations came down to what was actually meant by the words used, at 7.

‘Plant and machinery’ and a farming business

The Court said that the evidence showed the deceased had been running a cattle farm, and had so for many years, but had made no mention of the cattle or the farming business in his will.  It was clear, the Court said that the gift to the cousin was a gift of farmland and the ‘plant and machinery’, and there was no reason to extend that to the farming business. To do so would extend the words beyond their plain and natural meaning.

Items not included

While the Court said it was difficult to find a definition of the phrase ‘plant and machinery’, its natural meaning would not include cattle.  There was nothing to suggest an intention to give a ‘working farm’.  If that had been the intention, it was said it would have been easy to do so by including the words in the will. But that wasn’t done, and ‘words should be given their plain and obvious meaning.’, at 9.

Similarly for the money found, it was not ‘plant and equipment’.  Accordingly the items above fell into the residuary estate and distributed according to the clause on that. Costs of all parties were paid from the estate.

1. Graham v Klenk [2017] WASC 342

B Stead
BHS Legal

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