With approximately one in three families in the United Kingdom now being a “blended” family, i.e. a family with a combination of parents, new partners, and children from different relationships, blended families can create complex financial planning issues as a result of a person’s wealth not passing to its intended recipient in the event of a family member’s death.
One common issue that can cause significant difficulties is the traditional wording used when referring to children in a will. This can lead to issues where step-children are concerned. The wording may well not be sufficient to include step-children. Equally, it may be the deceased did not intend to include step-children.
The position is even more complicated if the deceased did not make a will. In such circumstances, the deceased will be held to have died intestate and the estate will be distributed in accordance with the statutory intestacy rules. These rules do not include any provision for step-children.
In the case of Reading V Reading  the claimants, Janet Reading and Richard Flack, sought a declaration as to the proper construction of a clause in a will and in particular of “issue” in the definition of “beneficiaries” under the clause.
The claimants were two of the trustees of a trust established by the will of the late John Reading dated 30 January 2014. The deceased was survived by his two children, Stuart and Sally, together with three step-children. Stuart and Sally also had six children between them, all of whom were minors and were born after the date of the deceased’s death.
Under his will, the deceased set up a nil-rate band discretionary trust. The clauses of the will setting out the trust including the testator’s “issue” in the definition of beneficiaries with provision for such issue to be born at the testator’s death or thereafter during the trust period.
The claimants contended that the definition of “issue” should include both the deceased’s children and his step-children, as well as their respective children.
In the case of Marley V Rawlings  the Supreme Court decided that the approach to interpreting wills should be the same as that adopted in relation to contracts. The aim being to “identify the intention of the party or parties to the document by interpreting the words used in their documentary, factual and commercial context”.
The court went on to state “when interpreting a contract, the court is concerned to find the intention of a 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 …”
Having regard to Marley, the judge began by seeking to identify the meaning of the term “issue” in the will in light of the natural and ordinary meaning of those words, the overall purpose of the will, the other provisions of the will, common sense and the facts known or assumed by the testator at the time the will was executed.
The judge concluded that the meaning of the word “issue” does not in its ordinary and natural meaning include step-children. It implies the actual children of the testator in the biological sense, together with the descendants of those children. His conclusion as regards the inclusion of the descendants was, the judge stated, consistent with the inclusions of the phrase “who are alive at the start of or born during the Trust Period” as set out in clause 3.2.3 of the will.
The judge went on to consider the context of the word used in the sense of the overall purpose of the will as a whole and the other provisions contained in it. In this regard, the judge stated that it was relevant to take into account the fact that had the testator’s wife not survived the testator by 28 days, the entirety of his estate would have been divided between both his children and his step-children, each of whom were identified by name, in accordance with the provisions of clause 4.2 of the will – the trust only took effect because the testator’s wife did survive him by the requisite period.
The judge considered it would seem odd if the structure of the will was such that the children and step-children took the residue if the testator was second to die, but the step-children were afforded no interest in the trust, and therefore in the testator’s estate at all if he were to die first.
Taking these factors into account, the judge concluded that the ordinary and natural meaning of the word included both children and step-children and their children, rather than descendants of all degrees.
Whilst in this case the court concluded that the word “issue” including step-children and their children, the case demonstrates the importance of ensuring that beneficiaries are clearly identified in a testator’s will. The need to issue court proceedings to seek a declaration as regards the construction of this will could easily have been avoided by either defining the word “issue” itself, naming the beneficiaries specifically or making it clear that “issue” included both children and step-children and their children.
The case therefore serves as a useful reminder to both testators and practitioners as regards the importance of ensuring that definitions such as “issue” and “beneficiaries” are clear and not ambiguous.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.