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Ambiguous Trusts, Parol Evidence

In interpreting trust documents, you are generally restricted to reviewing only the language and terms of the trust. Indeed, “[a]bsent any ambiguity in the terms of the trust, the intent of the [trust-maker] must be determined from the four corners of the instrument without resort to parol evidence as to the intention.” Kempton v. Dugan, 224 S.W.3d 83, 87 (Mo. Ct. App. 2007). Parol evidence is any evidence, particularly oral statements, outside the four corners of the document offered to substantiate or vary the terms of the document. Extrinsic evidence, then, concerning a trust-maker intentions, whether made before, during or after execution of a trust, cannot be considered in construing the trust language. Id.

There are some major exceptions to the prohibition against parol evidence. One important exception is if there is an ambiguity in the trust document. “The mere fact that the parties [to a document] disagree upon the interpretation of a document does not render it ambiguous.” In re Nelson, 926 S.W.2d 707, 709 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996). Instead, an ambiguity exists when there is duplicity, in-distinctiveness or uncertainty in the meaning of the language; language can further be ambiguous if it is reasonably open to different constructions. If the court determines that the trust document has an ambiguity, then parol evidence as to the trust-maker’s intention may be permissible. 

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