A Bewildering Bequest: The Supreme Court of Virginia Weighs in on the Meaning of a Will’s Residuary Clause

Most people are familiar with the basic contents of a will.  Wills typically name an executor, order the payment of debts and expenses, and provide for the distribution of the testator’s (will-maker) property.  Many wills provide for specific property to pass to specific people.  These are known as specific bequests or devises.  In addition to such bequests or devises, most wills contain a residuary clause – sort of a catch-all disposition for all of the rest and remainder of the estate.  They typically read something like this: “I leave all of the rest, residue, and remainder of my property, of whatever sort, to [beneficiary’s name]”.  On occasion, however, wills contain ambiguous or otherwise unclear provisions that require a court’s deciphering.

In Feeney v. Feeney, the Supreme Court of Virginia (the “Supreme Court”) recently addressed a perplexing residuary clause contained in the will of James Feeney (“Testator”).  Testator had two sons from a prior marriage – Sean and James.  Testator’s wife at the time of his passing was Marjorie (not the mother of Sean and James).  The residuary clause provided that the residue of Testator’s estate would generally pass to his wife Marjorie. However, the residuary clause went on to provide that Testator desired such property to be used for Marjorie’s health and support, and also for health and support of his son Sean.  The residuary clause also provided that upon Marjorie’s passing, such residuary property would pass to Sean in trust.  Additionally, the residuary clause went on to provide that Testator desired to keep his and Marjorie’s accounts separate so that upon both of their passings, any assets remaining from Testator’s estate would pass to their respective children.

After Testator’s passing, litigation ensued.  James filed suit seeking an interpretation of the residuary clause language – specifically seeking a holding that it granted Marjorie a life estate in the residuary (as opposed to full rights to dispose of the residuary property as she saw fit), an order removing Marjorie as trustee and executor, and an order requiring her to pay back any and all assets that she wrongfully used.  James also sought a court order that the residuary ought to be eventually split between Sean and himself.  Sean filed an answer mostly agreeing with James’s request for relief.  Marjorie argued that the residuary clause gave her absolute power to dispose of the residuary estate.  The matter was decided on summary judgment based on agreement between the parties that the residuary clause was unambiguous.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Marjorie, found that the will left the residue of the estate to Marjorie, and specifically held that the residuary clause did not create a life estate in Marjorie.  Sean and James objected to the trial court’s decision for various reasons on a variety of grounds.  In the interests of clarity and brevity, only the issue of the interpretation of the residuary clause will be addressed herein.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court analyzed the residuary clause’s meaning anew.  Specifically, the Supreme Court stated that its goal in construing the will was to analyze the language of the will made by the testator and not speculate as to its meaning.  The Supreme Court stated that it must first look to the plain language of the will to determine its meaning.  Additionally, the Supreme Court reasoned that the entire will and all its contents should be examined and given effect if possible.  Additionally, the Supreme Court noted that courts generally construe deeds and wills as passing the largest estate which the language is capable of passing unless there is clear contrary intent to do otherwise.

The Supreme Court held that while the Testator did not expressly indicate any intent to convey a life estate to Marjorie, the will as a whole indicated a clear intent to restrict Marjorie’s use of the residuary property.  For instance, the Supreme Court pointed out that the residuary clause contemplated that property would be left over after Marjorie’s passing.  The will provided that any residuary property left over after Marjorie’s passing would pass to Sean in trust.  Additionally, the residuary clause provided that the Testator’s accounts and Marjorie’s accounts ought to be kept separate so that whatever remained of Testator’s estate would pass to Testator’s children.  The Supreme Court reasoned that the restrictions placed on Marjorie by the terms of the residuary clause were incongruous with an absolute power of disposition.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, and held that Marjorie possessed merely a life estate in the residuary estate, as opposed to full rights to the residuary property.

Summary

This case provides additional clarification on the law in Virginia regarding interpretation of provisions of trusts and wills.  This case also illustrates the reality that language in wills and trusts can sometimes mean something different than one may think.  Disputes relating to will and trust interpretation typically necessitate the assistance of an experienced estate litigator.

Brett Herbert

About: Brett Herbert

Brett Herbert is an associate attorney in the firm’s Williamsburg office. He is a member of the firm’s Estate and Trust Litigation practice area team. He devotes his practice primarily to disputes involving wills, trusts, guardianships, conservatorships, powers of attorney, and elder law matters. View all posts by Brett Herbert
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