Even the most carefully drafted will can contain inadvertent clerical errors that leave room for doubt as to the document's true meaning. As a High Court ruling showed, however, judges happily have the power to correct such mistakes so as to ensure that the intentions of the deceased are honoured.
The case concerned a woman who made her final will more than 20 years before her death. By far the largest asset in her relatively modest estate was her home, which was worth about £140,000. The document stated in clear terms that the house was to go to her sister for life and thereafter to a niece to whom she was very close and whom she appointed as sole executor of her will.
However, a further, apparently contradictory paragraph in the will created serious difficulties: it stated that, should her sister die before her or fail to survive her by 30 days, all of the woman's estate – on the face of it including the house – should be divided equally between the niece and two other relatives.
In seeking rectification of the will, the niece testified that her understanding prior to her aunt's death was that her intention was that the house would be hers after the sister died. The solicitor who drafted the will accepted that she had made an inadvertent error in omitting four words from the document.
Granting the order sought, the Court looked beyond the strict wording of the will and relied on extraneous evidence in order to discern the intentions of the deceased. It was clear that the solicitor had made a clerical error and that her client's intention was to bequeath to the other relatives a provisional share in the residue of her estate, not including the house.
The sister having died before the deceased, the Court's ruling meant that the niece would inherit the house absolutely. She and the other relatives would share the residuary estate, which was worth about £42,000.