The Complication of Interpretation

February 28, 2019

The Complication of Interpretation

The law provides guidance, a safe path on which to tread the most precarious of grounds. Whilst this pillar of clarity and counsel is a key value of the legal profession, not everything can be accounted for. Outdated wording and ambiguous interpretation means that while the law can be incredibly useful, it is not perfect.

One such occasion occurred in the case of Thorpe and others v Bestwick [1881] where property was left to Miss Bestwick in the Will of Mrs Wolstenholme. Miss Bestwick subsequently married one of the witnesses to the Will some years later, bringing the validity of the bequest to Miss Wolstenholme into question. The reason for this is that the Wills Act states that if any person attests the execution of a Will to whom, or to whose spouse, any gift is made, the gift to them becomes invalid.

The case went to court after a close relative of the deceased attempted to block Miss Wolstenholme’s legacy in an attempt to have the gift redirected to themselves and the following arguments under the Wills Act 1837 were presented:-

  • Section 14 of the Wills Act states that if a witness to a Will transpires be incompetent (ie superfluous), then the validity of the Will shall not be affected.
  • Section 15 of the Wills Act states that any witness to a Will who is either personally entitled or whose wife or husband is entitled to a legacy within the Will shall remain as a valid witness, but the legacy is null and void.
  • Section 24 of the Wills Act states that a Will shall be interpreted as if taking effect immediately before the death of the Testator and not at the time of writing unless the Will states otherwise.

In the case at hand there was a gap in the law. The Will itself was not invalidated by the marriage, but was the gift? It was argued that the Will Act requires a Will to be interpreted in the circumstances as at the date of death, when the witness and beneficiary were married (as opposed to when it was signed and the two were not wed) and therefore the gift was no longer valid.

The defendants contested the argument that the gift was invalid, stating that any argument to this effect was unjust and that it would be to interpret the law in a way that was not intended by Parliament and to place too much importance in a witness’s actions after the date of signature.

Judge Mathew concluded that the gift was valid. He ruled that the existence of Section 14 in the Wills Act demonstrated enough forethought with respect to a witness becoming unfit to prove a Will that there would be no reason for Parliament to cover the same issue within a different section of the Act. As such, the rule preventing a beneficiary witnessing the signing of a Will in which they benefit is designed to capture fraudulent parties only, and not those who accidentally find themselves within this rule.

It can be seen that this decision was reached by way of the Court using a common sense approach to the interpretation of the Wills Act.  Such is the risk of the man or woman who makes his or her own Will without taking appropriate legal advice.

HMG LAW LLP provides qualified and experienced professionals who can advise clients about their Wills and, after their death, can talk to their heirs sympathetically about the legal process of dealing with administration of an estate.

If you have any further queries or would like to instruct HMG LAW LLP to assist in the administration of an estate, please contact us today to arrange an appointment at either of our offices.

posted by Daniel McGurk | February 28 2019