The importance of using clear language in your Will

Last Will and testament
A recent case has demonstrated the importance of using clear and unambiguous language when drafting a Will.

The failure to use clear language can leave your Will open to the possibility of being challenged, with all sorts of potentially unintended consequences. An ambiguous Will also draws out the time and expense involved in dealing with your Estate which can put your loved ones in an uncomfortable, upsetting or financially difficult situation. Working with a qualified, experienced lawyer to draft your will can help prevent this type of situation and will provide you with greater assurance that your wishes will be clearly understood and followed after your death. Click here to find out more about our Wills Service.

The case also demonstrates that when the interpretation of a Will is ambiguous, the Court may look at external evidence to discover the Testator’s true intention.

The facts

The Testator, a distinguished physicist named Mr Michael Crowley-Milling, died at the age of 95 in December 2012. Mr. Crowley-Milling’s wife pre-deceased him and they had no children. His only living relatives were his brother’s children and grandchildren – his niece Joy Robinson, great-niece Rebecca Masterman, 22, and 26-year-old great-nephew James Masterman.

Mr. Crowley-Milling left two Wills: a Swiss Will dated 13th February 2006 and an English Will dated 19th October 2009. There were no issues with the 2006 Swiss Will – this dealt exclusively with Swiss assets and at the time of death, Mr. Crowley-Milling’s only Swiss asset was a bank account containing over £500k. The Swiss Will left this to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific institution.

The issues arose over Mr. Crowley-Milling’s 2009 English Will. This left a number of particular legacies, with the residuary to the Royal Society.

At the date of death, Mr. Crowley-Milling had substantial funds in offshore accounts which included over £250k in a Barclays account on the Isle of Man and over £600k in a Santander account in Jersey.

His 2009 Will read:

“I hereby revoke all former Wills and testamentary dispositions made by me with the exception of my Swiss Will dated 13th February 2006 and

I declare that:

(a) I am domiciled in England.

(b) this Will and any Codicil to it shall be construed and take effect according to English law;

(c) this Will and any Codicil to it shall extend only to property of mine which is situated at my death in the United Kingdom.”

The usual interpretation of “the United Kingdom” does not include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – neither of which are actually regarded as part of the United Kingdom. Mr. Crowley-Milling did not make any additional Will dealing with these assets.

If, therefore, by using the words “United Kingdom” at Clause 1(c) of the 2009 Will Mr. Crowley-Milling excluded the accounts held in the Isle of Man and Jersey, then he died intestate (without a Will) with regards to that part of the estate (i.e. the bank accounts). This would mean that those assets would pass to the next of kin – Joy, James and Rebecca.

If however the Will were to be interpreted so that “United Kingdom” included the accounts held in the Isle of Man and Jersey, the assets would be divided according to the clauses in his Will, with the residuary going to the Royal Society.

Mr. Crowley-Milling’s 2009 English Will

Mr. Crowley-Milling’s Will contained the following clauses:

Clause 1 is as set out above.

Clause 2 dealt with the appointment of Executors.

Clause 3 was worded as follows:

“I give (free of costs of transfer and inheritance tax) to my Trustees my pictures, photographs, books, medals, trophies, jewellery and all articles bearing the names Mr. Crowley-Milling Gee Gladys and/or Crowley-Milling or that are associated with them for transferring as to one half for my niece, Joy Robinson, and as to the other half equally between Gillian Masterman’s children, James and Rebecca, and I declare my Trustees may allow the beneficiaries to choose items to make up their one half-share, but in the event of any dispute the decision of my Trustees as to the distribution shall be final and binding.”

At Clause 4, the Will specified

“£200,000 to Joy Robinson and £200,000 to his trustees and Paul Masterman as trustees to hold upon trust in equal shares for James Masterman and Rebecca Masterman upon attaining the age of twenty-five”.

Clause 5 of the Will dealt with the gift of a house that he had bought for his carer.

Clause 6 provided:

“I devise and bequeath the remainder of my real and personal estate whatsoever and wheresoever not hereby or by any Codicil hereto otherwise specifically disposed of unto my Trustees upon trust to sell, call in and convert the same into money with power to postpone the sale, calling in and conversion thereof so long as my trustees shall in their absolute discretion think fit without being liable for loss.”

At Clause 7, he left the residue of the estate to the Royal Society for the credit of “The Crowley-Milling Trust Fund”.

The United Kingdom – definitions

Appearing for the Royal Society, Richard Wilson argued that the referenced to the United Kingdom should not be given its usual technical meaning.

The usual meaning of “United Kingdom” as set out in Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary is as follows:

“The United Kingdom is a union of England and Wales with Scotland forming Great Britain (Union with Scotland Act 1706) and Northern Ireland (Union with Ireland Act 1800, Government of Ireland Act 1920). So apart from interpretation clauses the use of “United Kingdom” in statutes shows that only Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but not the Channel Islands or Isle of Man are included therein.”

This meaning is confirmed in the Interpretation Act 1978 at Schedule 1:

“The United Kingdom means Great Britain and Northern Ireland” whereas “British Islands means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.”

Halsbury’s Laws of England under “Constitutional and Administrative Law” (rule 20) para.3 refers to the United Kingdom as meaning:

“Great Britain and Northern Ireland exclusive of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man”.

Also in Halsbury’s under “Commonwealth” (rule 13) at para.790, (Constitutional status of the Channel Islands) Halsbury’s provides:

“The Channel Islands (like the Isle of Man) occupy an anomalous position for they are neither part of the United Kingdom nor colonies.”

and under para.799 (Constitutional status of the Isle of Man) Halsbury’s says:

“The Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom.”

Strictly, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not, therefore, part of the United Kingdom.

Interpreting the Will

If the words in Mr. Crowley-Milling’s Will were interpreted literally, the effect would be to exclude the offshore accounts from the 2009 Will. Mr. Crowley-Milling stated that the Will was only to cover his property in the United Kingdom and the offshore accounts were not in the United Kingdom. If this conclusion was accepted, Mr. Crowley-Milling would have died intestate regarding those accounts and they would pass to his relatives.

However Mr. Wilson argued that “United Kingdom” should be interpreted to include the accounts.

The Supreme Court in Marley v. Rawlings [2014] UKSC 2 contains guidance on the interpretation of Wills at paras. 17 to 26. At Para 19 Lord Neuberger says:

“(19) When interpreting a contract, the court is concerned to find the intention of the party or parties, and it does this by identifying the meaning of the relevant words, (a) in the light of (i) the natural and ordinary meaning of those words, (ii) the overall purpose of the document, (iii) any other provisions of the document, (iv) the facts known or assumed by the parties at the time that the document was executed, and (v) common sense, but (b) ignoring subjective evidence of any party’s intentions.

(20)        When it comes to interpreting wills, it seems to me that the approach should be the same. Whether the document in question is a commercial contract or a will, the aim is to identify the intention of the party or parties to the document by interpreting the words used in their documentary, factual and commercial context.”

At para. 23 of the Judgement, Lord Neuberger refers to Lord Justice James’s suggestion in Boyes v Cook (1880) 14 Ch D 53, 56, that,

“when interpreting a will, the court should ‘place [itself] in [the testator’s] arm-chair’, “and says that this is consistent with the approach of interpretation by reference to the factual context”.

Additionally, as noted by Lord Neuberger, consideration must also be given s.21 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 which provides:

This section applies to a will-

a) in so far as any part of it is meaningless;
b) in so far as the language used in any part of it is ambiguous on the face of it;

c) in so far as evidence, other than evidence of the testator’s intention, shows that the language used in any part of it is ambiguous in the light of surrounding circumstances.

(2) In so far as this section applies to a will extrinsic evidence, including evidence of the testator’s intention, may be admitted to assist in its interpretation.”

This section goes beyond principles applicable to the construction of contracts (under which evidence of the intention of the parties is not admissible), and allows in evidence of the testator’s intention.

Although there is no suggestion that Mr. Crowley-Milling’s Will is meaningless or ambiguous, Mr Wilson argued that s.21(1)(c) does apply because evidence, not including evidence of the testator’s intention, shows that the language used is ambiguous. The ambiguity arises from the fact that Mr. Crowley-Milling left specific and carefully thought out legacies of £200,000 to James and Rebecca. These legacies make no sense if the Will does not cover the offshore accounts.

Mr Wilson also pointed out that although lawyers may understand the exact meaning of “United Kingdom”, layman – even highly intelligent laymen such as Mr. Crowley-Milling – would not necessarily appreciate the technical issues.

A further point to support this thought can be found in Stoneham v. The Ocean, Railway v. General Accident Insurance Co. [1887] 19 QBD 237 where Mr. Justice Matthew, giving judgment for the plaintiff, says:

“I think it is sufficiently apparent that the question which the parties intended to leave to the Court as a question of law is whether Jersey is, in popular language, a part of the United Kingdom. I have no hesitation in saying that it is: I can give no other answer to the question.”

The reason  this case was considered was because it showed that in 1887, Jersey was, in popular language, a part of the United Kingdom. It would therefore be entirely possible that a lay person might include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in their own interpretation of the United Kingdom, and this was what Mr. Crowley-Milling meant when he referred to the United Kingdom in his Will.

Mr. Wilson further pointed out that in fact Mr. Crowley-Milling  had used the words “Great Britain” in his instructions. On returning the draft to Mr. Crowley-Milling, the solicitors used even more vague wording, referring to “this Country”. It would appear that neither the solicitors or Mr. Crowley-Milling drew a distinction between “this Country”, “Great Britain” and “the United Kingdom”.

The Judge accepted Mr Wilson’s argument and proceeded to consider the Mr. Crowley-Milling’s intention, based on the lengthy history, various notes and correspondence which included contact with the Royal Society and a previous Will made in 2006.

In his paperwork, Mr. Crowley-Milling refers to his “assets in England” as including the bank accounts that were held in the Isle of Man and Jersey.

The Judge noted that there was no evidence of Mr. Crowley-Milling actually holding any other property in the UK at all.

The Judge thought it likely that Mr. Crowley-Milling had sufficient understanding to appreciate that if he did not deal with his assets by way of a Will, they would pass on intestacy. He therefore believed that the clause in the 2009 Will which provided that the Will “should only extend to property which is situated at my death in the United Kingdom” was not intended to cut out the offshore accounts. The effect of that is that after the specific gifts in the Will were dealt with, the remainder passes to the Royal Society as residuary beneficiary.


For both practitioners and those choosing to write their own Will, this case highlights the importance of using clear and unambiguous language when preparing a Will.

When two Wills are used to deal with assets in different countries, rather than trying to limit Will X to certain assets, it will often be preferable to draft it to deal with all assets ‘other than those in Will Y’. It is then unlikely that there will be assets that are not covered by either Will.

Reference: The Royal Society v Robinson Case No. HC-2015-000635

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