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In the novel A Colorful Death by Carola Dunn, a man, Dr Fenwick, becomes engaged to a woman, Stella Warren.He makes a new will leaving all his property (except for a few small specified bequests) to "my wife, Sella Fenwick". But he dies before the marriage takes place, and his solicitor informs Stella that since she is not Dr Fenwick's wife she inherits nothing. She is significantly younger than he is, and apparently he did not specify any contingent or residuary legatee other than Stella. (The novel is not explicit on that, but assume it for this question.)

The novel is set in Cornwall sometime in the period 1965-73, so the legal system would have been England and Wales.

Would the words in the will "my wife, Sella Fenwick" have acted as a bequest to Stella before the marriage:

  1. In E&W circa 1970?
  2. In E&W circa 2022?
  3. In the US, say New York, circa 1970?
  4. In New York circa 2022?

Later it turns out that Stella killed Dr Fenwick (intending the death to occur after the honeymoon) so of course she wouldn't inherit anyway, but for this question assume that someone else killed him, or that her action was not discovered.

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    I would think that if the person is directly named in the will that adding wife to it wouldn't invalidate it.
    – Joe W
    Feb 26 at 3:11
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    @JoeW but if I am reading the question correctly, she was not Stella Fenwick before the marriage, she was Stella Warren.
    – Damila
    Feb 27 at 1:59
  • @Damila That is correct, although it was clear that Stella Warren was the person whom Dr Fenwick expected to become his wife, Stella Fenwick. Feb 27 at 2:40
  • @Damila names in common-law countries are just signposts. If my birth certificate says John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt but people know me as Tom Jones, then I am Tom Jones, and no legal wrangling around the concept of "legal name" will matter. A contract or will that references "Tom Jones" will be fully recognized as long as it is clear that said document actually does refer to me. That might require a fact-specific inquiry but not an inquiry into my "legal" name. Mar 15 at 18:00

2 Answers 2

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Under U.S. law, the primary consideration then and now, in the interpretation of Wills is the intent of the testator (i.e. the person who drafted the Will who is now the decedent).

I very much doubt that Sella Fenwick nee Warren would lose her inheritance because her betrothed died shortly before the wedding. (In Colorado, which has common law marriage, such a statement would probably suffice to cause them to be married on the day the will was written, if not sooner.)

Usually, a characterization of a relationship is viewed as a non-functional identifier offered for convenience (to distinguish any other Sella Fenwick from the one he was marrying, such as a distant cousin), rather than a condition precedent to inheritance in the absence of very explicit language to the contrary.

Similarly, it is clear that a name change of a devisee between the time that the will is executed and the time of the death does not impair the devisee's right to inherit. You don't have to rewrite your will just because one of your kids gets married and changes his or her name. (I personally changed my name in New York State when I married, and yet I still received devises made to me under my premarital name from my parents.)

The cases most closely on point would probably be cases where a stepchild is identified in a will as a "child", without qualification (a much more common fact pattern than the one in the question). But, I doubt that anyone has lost an inheritance in that fashion in New York.

The case would be much closer if the will simply said "my wife" without inserting the name of a particular individual.

New York law has not formally changed on the books, so to speak, in any really material way between 1970 and 2022 with respect to this issue. But there has been a general attitude towards interpreting written instruments in that time period that is less formalistic and more concerned about the merits of the testator's intent in how wills are interpreted in 2022 than it was in 1970.

In part, the flexibility involved in Will interpretation is a function of the fact that probate (apart from a proceeding to determine if a will was validly executed) involves a court acting in its equity court role rather than as a court of law, and partially it reflects the fact that judges know that there is no possibility of having the testator correct the document once it is before a judge.

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  • "such a statement would probably suffice to cause them to be married on the day the will was written" I am surprised. I thought a common-law marriage required that a couple live together, and "hold themselves out" as married, that is that the community understanding was that a marriage existed. In the novel they were not sharing living space, nor did they describe themselves to others in any way but "about to be married" or words to that effect. Perhaps that should be another question. Feb 26 at 0:17
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    @DavidSiegel Cohabitation is not required. The statement in the Will would probably establish "holding themselves out" as married, and the requirement that the parties view themselves as married at the time.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 26 at 0:25
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    Using the term "my wife, Sella Fenwick" might possibly have the effect of the will not being invalidated by the marriage, had it occurred. Although, absent children, the wife would otherwise become the sole benefiary. Sloppy wording though.
    – richardb
    Feb 26 at 18:12
  • I don’t think that can be right, I can write a will today that says “my wife, Taylor Swift”. I can’t see that that makes me married to the pop star.
    – Dale M
    Feb 26 at 22:27
  • @DaleM If your last comment was addressed at me: section 18 (3) of the Wills Act 1837 may apply. Where it appears from a will that at the time it was made the testator was expecting to be married to a particular person and that he intended that the will should not be revoked by the marriage, the will shall not be revoked by his marriage to that person. One could easily argue that either way though, which is why I called it sloppy wording.
    – richardb
    Feb 27 at 9:55
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If the testator had simply written "my wife" then the bequest would likely fail, because he had no wife at the time of his death. If he had written just "Stella Fenwick" then it would likely work, even though that was not her exact name, and "my wife, Stella Fenwick" would also work even though the extra description is inaccurate. There is no doubt about who was intended, and courts will overlook defects in naming. (This is assuming there's nobody else in Dr Fenwick's life with a similar enough name, such as a sister named Sarah Fenwick, which would create an ambiguity; or if he were married to somebody else so that "my wife" and "Stella" were distinct individuals.) Other testators have misstated the names of their own children, their siblings, or themselves. This is well settled; for an old example, see River's Case of 1737, which also considered whether "son" can mean an illegitimate son:

If a man is mistaken in a devise, yet if a person is clearly made out by averment to be the person meant, and there can be no other to whom it may be applied; the devise to him is good.

The principle goes under the grand Latin name "falsa demonstratio non nocet", "a false description does no harm". If the ambiguity is so great that it cannot be determined who is intended, then it's another story. The situation happens more commonly with bequests to charitable organizations, where the legal name of the entity may be different from the name that the testator uses.

It was clear enough that the solicitor could tell Stella Warren that she would not inherit: he understood that she was who the testator had named, albeit with some inaccuracy. There is a slight possibility that the testator meant to create a conditional bequest, i.e. make it effective only if they were married at the time of his death, but more express words would generally be needed in order to make this compelling. I think Stella Warren could argue her claim and the solicitor is wrong to dismiss this out of hand.

A similar case is In re Wagstaff [1908], where the testator left his house to "my dear wife, D. J. Wagstaff; if she shall so long continue my widow, for her own use and benefit, and upon her decease or second marriage, then over". The lady in question was never married to him, and therefore could not be his widow, and in fact was married to another man all along. On appeal, it was held that "the testator means beyond all doubt, and it has not been disputed, the lady with whom he went through the form of marriage". The additional inaccurate words are not a problem.

In another similar case, Pilot v Gainfort [1931], the testator Dr Frederick Pilot gave "to Diana Featherstone Pilot my wife all my worldly goods". He was not married to her at the time and she did not share his surname - indeed, he was married to somebody else, who had disappeared in 1921. The will was executed in 1927, and the couple were married in 1928 (since after seven years' disappearance, the former wife could be presumed deceased). In probate proceedings, the will was held to be valid - of course they were married at the time of death, but this does show a will where the name and description of the legatee were inapt at the time it was written.

The law as of 1965-1973 was not fully settled on what evidence could be taken to help interpret disputed passages of a will. There were many rules specific to the interpretation of wills, which were not obvious even to practitioners. So even though Stella Warren has an argument, she might have had difficulty persuading a judge, depending on the approach taken. This changed in 1982 with the enactment of the Administration of Justice Act. In its section 21, it brought in a general rule that for any ambiguity, "extrinsic evidence, including evidence of the testator's intention, may be admitted to assist in its interpretation". This allows examination of the solicitor's meeting notes, for example, which could illuminate what the testator asked the solicitor to accomplish in the drafting. Such "parol evidence" would previously not have been allowed.

Therefore, aside from the murder, Stella would have an easier time today making her case, though in both time periods her case is quite strong on the principle.

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