Determining a Grantor’s Intent in Trusts

When interpreting a trust, the Settlor’s “intent is controlling and such intention must be ascertained primarily from the trust instrument as a whole.” Berezo v. Berezo, 628 S.W.3d 737, 743-44 (Mo. App. E.D. 2021). Because language and circumstances vary, the Court must examine “the specific language as well as the surrounding circumstances.” Matter of TR Potter, Jr. Exempt Trust, 593 S.W.3d 556, 562 (Mo. App. E.D. 2019). A settlor is presumed to know and intend the legal effect of the language used and the Court gives the language its plain and ordinary meaning. First National Bank of Kansas City v. Danforth, 523 S.W.2d 808, 816 (Mo. 1975). In evaluating intent, the instrument or instruments in question must be construed as a whole. Estate of Boder, 850 S.W.2d 76, 79 (Mo. 1993). “Provisions are to be harmonized when possible and construed in the light of the purposes and general scheme of the grantor and testator.” Id.

Sometimes the language of a trust is ambiguous. When there is an ambiguity, courts can use extrinsic evidence — things outside the four corners of the document — to glean intent. if there is a patent ambiguity, “operative facts concerning events in the testator’s life may be introduced in evidence in order to ascertain his exact intent, and to give precise and explicit meaning to the language used in the instrument.” Schupbach v. Schupbach, 760 S.W.2d 918, 923 (Mo. App. S.D. 1988). If there is a latent ambiguity, Settlor’s declaration of intent is admissible to explain the ambiguity. Id.

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