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In Stephens v. Beard, a husband shot his wife, who died immediately, and then shot himself. He died hours later in the hospital. No. 12-13-00160-CV, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 3895 (Tex. App.—Tyler April 10, 2014), rev’d, No. 14-0406, 2016 Tex. LEXIS 219 (Tex. March 18, 2016). Their wills provided for nine cash bequests if they died in a common disaster or under circumstances making it impossible to determine who died first. The executrix claimed that the nine specific bequests were not triggered because she could tell who died first and it was not a common disaster. The court of appeals, disagreed, holding that it was a common disaster: “the shots were fired in one episode, which is a common disaster in spite of the fact that [husband] did not successfully kill himself immediately.” Id.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals. Stephens, 2016 Tex. LEXIS 219. The Court stated the following regarding construing a will:
In construing a will, our focus is on the testator’s intent, which is “ascertained by looking to the provisions of the instrument as a whole, as set forth within the four corners of the instrument.” Thus, “[t]he court should focus not on ‘what the [testator] intended to write, but the meaning of the words [he] actually used.’” Such words, “whether technical or popular,” are construed “in their plain and usual sense, unless a clear intention to use them in another sense” is present in the instrument. Generally, “[t]he will should be construed so as to give effect to every part of it, if the language is reasonably susceptible of that construction.”
Id. at * 3. Citing Black’s Law Dictionary, the Court defined the phrase “common disaster” as “[a]n event that causes two or more persons [with related property interests] . . . to die at very nearly the same time, with no way of determining the order of their deaths.” Id. *3-4. The Court held that the court of appeals erred in crafting its own definition by separately defining the words “common” and “disaster” and combining their separate definitions, which excluded the requirement that it be impossible to determine who died first. The Court noted that the “common disaster” provision is used to ensure orderly distribution when the order of death is uncertain, and absent language establishing a contrary intent, the order of death must be uncertain for the provision to become effective. The Court concluded that: “the Beards intended to use ‘common disaster’ according to its settled legal meaning. Because Vencie died nearly two hours after Melba, their deaths did not trigger the common-disaster provisions in their wills.” As such, the nine cash bequests were not triggered, and those assets remained in the estate to be distributed to others.
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