July 1, 2014
Authored by: Luke Lantta
Words or phrases sometimes get passed on from one form to another without ever stopping to give too much thought about what they might actually might mean or could be construed to mean. It’s later – when one of those words or phrases – comes into dispute that we really dig into the implications of choosing those words. For example, in Heath v. Heath, the Appellate Court of Connecticut had to determine what the phrase “legal representatives” meant when the “Hembdt Trust” provided that upon the death of one of the beneficiaries (“Aloise”), her interests would pass to her “legal representatives, heirs-at-law or next of kin.”
Aloise’s will provided for the creation of several testamentary trusts, including a testamentary trust for the benefit of her husband and a testamentary trust for her children. Upon Aloise’s death, the trustees and executors of her will decided that the provision in the Hembdt Trust required Aloise’s interests in the Hembdt Trust to pass into her estate, which resulted in those interests being distributed between the marital trust and the children’s trust.
The children, however, contended that the entirety of Aloise’s interests in the Hembdt Trust should have been distributed to them as Aloise’s heirs-at-law. They interpreted the phrase “legal representatives” to mean Aloise’s children. The children claimed that if “legal representatives” meant the executor or administrator of a person’s estate, then the phrases “heirs-at-law” or “next of kin” are not given effect. They claimed that “legal representatives,” “heirs-at-law,” and “next of kin” were synonymous and referred to Aloise’s lineal descendants.
Aloise’s husband, however, interpreted the phrase to mean Aloise’s executors or administrators. More specifically, Aloise’s husband argued that the term “legal representative” was used in conjunction with “heirs-at-law” and “next-of-kin.” Therefore, an interest would pass to (1) the beneficiary’s legal representatives (i.e., her executors) if she died testate; (2) if the beneficiary died intestate, to that person’s heirs-at-law; and (3) if there were no heirs-at-law, then to the next of kin.
The court agreed with the interpretation of Aloise’s husband. Although these three phrases are susceptible to multiple definitions, including “legal representatives” which may mean executors or administrators, those entitled to take by inheritance, or the children or lineal descendants of a decedent, within the context of the Hembdt Trust, it was clear that they were not intended to mean “lineal descendants.”