The Doctrine of Probable Intent Does Not Apply Absent an Ambiguity in Trust Terms

In the Matter of Violet Nelson, No. BER-P-001-15 (Chancery Division Jan. 27, 2016)

In this matter, the Court assessed whether it could alter the “plain, unambiguous language of the Trust, based on extrinsic evidence suggesting that the plain, unambiguous language of the Trust is not what the Settlor intended.”  Id. at *1.  The Settlor established a trust for the benefit of her “grandchildren.”  Prior to the Settlor  establishing the Trust, she executed her Last Will and Testament in which she expressly left nothing to one of her three children, Jacoba, and made reference to only having four grandchildren, excluding her grandchildren from Jacoba.  Id. at *3.

The Trust Agreement referenced the Settlor’s “grandchildren,” without expressly excluding Jacoba’s two children.  The attorney who drafted the Trust Agreement submitted a certification to the Court explaining that the intent was for the beneficiaries of the Trust to be only the four grandchildren from the Settlor’s two children – and none of Jacoba’s children.  Id. at *4.  Further, the Court found that “there is ample evidence in the record which, if accepted by a fact finder, could lead to a finding that Violet [the Settlor] intended to exclude Jacoba’s children from the Trust.”  Id. at *6.

However, the Court ultimately rejected the use of extrinsic evidence to alter the “plain, unambiguous language of the Trust.”  Id. at *1-2.  The Court reiterated the general rule of probable intent under N.J.S.A. 3B:3-33.16.  The Court held that the language of the trust is plain and unambiguous, and “is not susceptible to alternate readings.”  Id. at *7.  The Court continued:

The extrinsic evidence, however, does not create an ambiguity in the Trust language.  It seeks to contradict that which is unambiguous in the text, not explain any ambiguity in the text, and it seeks to do it in order to completely exclude one-third of the known members of the unambiguously identified beneficiary class (“grandchildren”).

Id. at *8.  The Court concluded that “[a]bsent ambiguity in the language of the Trust, the court can not resort to extraneous circumstances to explain away what is plainly said.”  Id. at 8.