The Importance of Precision

October 3, 2016

What do the words “residence and property” mean? The Michigan Court of Appeals recently faced this question in In re Estate of James A. Zielske where Mr. Zielske died leaving a will that devised “my residence and property located at 20550 180th Avenue, Big Rapids, Michigan to my wife, ELIZABETH PORTER ZIELSKE, if she survives me.” While this may seem straightforward, the facts of the case complicate matters.

Mr. Zielske’s residence sits on a 43 acre parcel of farm land that has a house, garage, pole barn, stable and other out buildings. Mr. Zielske also ran several businesses on the property and owned personal property related to those businesses. So what does “residence and property” mean now?

It could mean the house and contents of the house. It could also mean the house and the surrounding 43 acres. It could also mean the house, the 43 acres and all of the business equipment. Since Mr. Zielske left one-half of the remainder of his estate to his daughter from a previous marriage, the definition of “residence and property” became significant. His daughter argued it meant just the house and contents. His wife argued it meant the house, all of the land and the business equipment.

The lesson here is not the definition of “residence and property.” The Michigan Court of Appeals did not even decide that in this case. It sent the case back to the lower court to hear additional evidence about what Mr. Zielske may have meant when using those words. The lesson is that simple terms don’t always have an obvious meaning.

Had Mr. Zielske’s Will expressly stated that his second wife should receive only the house and contents, or the house and all of the 43 acres, it may have spared his wife and daughter a costly, and likely painful, dispute.

 

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