The (Seemingly) Evil Stepmother

We've looked at cases in the past highlighting the importance of clear written plans controlling property and money after death. This is especially important in situations involving families in which not everyone gets along. The recent appellate case of In Re: Estate of Bruce Chapman Bower illustrates this point.
In Bower, Mom and Dad were married and had children. Mom and Dad created a trust whereby their children were the beneficiaries. Mom then died and Dad remarried. Now, Dad was married to Stepmother and amended the trust to include, 1) Stepmother's use of a lake house, and 2) Stepmother's receipt of a monthly payment of $2,000 provided certain conditions were met. Dad then died. Son became trustee, while Stepmother was the beneficiary.
Son and Stepmother, however, didn't see eye to eye on what "primary" use of the lake house and the conditions attached to the $2,000 per month meant. Stepmother argued she got the lake house "exclusively" and that she got the money regardless of whether or not the trust had limiting language in it. (The monthly payment issue turned on whether the language precluded payment since Stepmother was Medicare eligible.)
The appellate court focused on the express language Dad chose coupled with the ordinary understanding of the words. The court sided with Son and held that "primary" didn't mean "exclusive", thus Dad's kids could use the lake house when Stepmother wasn’t. And, the court found that the language, "The payments called for under this subparagraph…shall continue until such time as [Stepmother] dies, remarries, or is qualified to receive Medicare Benefits" plainly meant that the monthly payments were no longer owed to Stepmother since she was Medicare eligible.
Clear language is crucial in estate planning, contract drafting, and many other situations. In addition, when undertaking estate planning, it is important to understand the family dynamics so that certain future issues can be addressed with clarity.