I'm a survivor

When drafting your Will it is important to be aware that many words do not carry what would seem to be their everyday meaning. If a document could have a side-view mirror it would read: “Warning: words in Will carry greater legal baggage than appears.”

Take the word “survive.” If you leave something in your Will to grandchildren who “survive” you, what do you mean? Do you intend to benefit only those grandchildren who were born during your lifetime? Or do you intend to benefit all the children your children may have, even if they were born after your death?

There have been cases that have turned on just this question. Lawyers and judges alike have debated the sense in which “survive” should be construed, calling on dictionaries, Shakespeare, and “intuition” in the process. Overwhelmingly, the interpretation has been this: to “survive” is to “outlive” – someone survives you if they live both during and after your lifetime.

It is an interpretation that is not without a catch, or two (or three). One such catch is known as the 30-day rule.[i] It applies in all Australian jurisdictions, and it means that even if a beneficiary survives you, they are presumed to have died before you unless they lived for a full 30 days after your death.

Another catch in the word “survive” could be that you unwittingly enable impatient beneficiaries to access their inheritance earlier than you wanted them to. Imagine you leave your estate to your two children, Bill and Ben, provided they attain the age of 30. If either die before you, you leave everything to any children that they have “who survive [you].” This means that if you die and Bill and Ben have no children, there are never going to be any grandchildren who could be considered to “survive” you. There is no-one else your estate could possibly go to except for Bill and Ben. So, Bill and Ben say, “why can’t we take the money now? Why should we have to wait til we’re 30?” From a legal perspective, it is a good question.

Finally, does a child “survive” you if they were not yet born but were conceived and anticipated while you were alive?[ii] What about frozen embryos that are created during your lifetime but only implanted and carried to term after your death?[iii] The normal meaning of the word “survive” does not adequately cover these cases and therefore may not align with your intentions.

To survive is not merely to live after, and it is not merely to outlive: terms and conditions attach.

Ultimately, the best way to guard against your testamentary intentions being misconstrued is to seek the advice of specialised estate planners who are aware of these language minefields and can navigate the drafting of your Will through them.

[i] See, for example, Wills Act 1968 (ACT), section 31C.

[ii] See, for example, Knight v Knight (1912) 14 CLR 86.

[iii] See, for example, Krstic v State Trustees Ltd [2012] VSC 344.