Ambiguous Drafting Leads to Litigation over Definition of a Decedent's "Heirs at Law" under Florida Law
Karasek v. William J. Lamping Trust, 2005 WL 2086183 (Fla. 4th DCA August 31, 2005) (Trial Court Reversed)
Precise drafting is the single most effective barrier against costly probate litigation. What makes estate planning documents especially challenging for attorneys is that the careful drafter needs to consider the very real possibility that the Will or Trust he or she drafts today could become a disputed matter decades in the future (or even hundreds of years in the future under Florida's new rule against perpetuities statute, see F.S. § 689.225). That's what happened in this case. A Will that was executed in 1967 became the subject of litigation in 2003 . . . 36 years after the date it was signed!
The 1967 Will contained a "default" clause common to any well drafted Will. Essentially, the document directed that in the event the testator's children predeceased his surviving spouse, upon the death of his surviving spouse the trust corpus was to be distributed to the "heirs" of his deceased children. What was unclear was whether the 1967 definition of heirs was applicable or the 2003 definition of heirs was applicable. The Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that under Florida law the presumption is that the testator intended the term "heirs at law" to be construed under the statutes in existence at the time the Will was executed, i.e., 1967.
The entire dispute could have been avoided if the default clause had stated what law was applicable, as the following example does:
If any property is subject to this article under another provision of this Trust Agreement, the Trustee shall distribute that property to my heirs at law determined under Florida law then in effect as if I had died intestate and unmarried on that date as a resident of Florida.