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Spangenberg And Others V Engelbrecht NO And Another

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Spangenberg And Others V Engelbrecht NO And Another

Guiding Principles for The Interpretation of Last Wills & Testaments

 

Guiding Principles for The Interpretation of Last Wills & Testaments

Case name: Spangenberg and Others v Engelbrecht NO and Another

Citation: [2023] ZASCA 100

Court: Supreme Court of Appeal

Date of Judgment: 14 June 2023

Introduction to Spangenberg and Others v Engelbrecht NO and Another

Executing a will allows people to express their wishes regarding the distribution of their property after their death.

Unfortunately, disputes concerning interpreting the deceased’s last Will and Testament, may arise among beneficiaries.

In these circumstances, the court can be approached to interpret the disputed provisions of the will.

This was the case in the Spangenberg matter.

Overview of the Matter

This case concerns an altercation between three adult siblings and their deceased father’s wife.

The dispute is over two plots of land that were left to the deceased’s daughters subject to a right of habitatio in favour of the deceased’s wife.

When someone holds a habitatio, they have a lifelong right to live on the property. They may let the habitatio or sublet the property.

Legal Issues Raised in the Case

The legal issue in this case related to the interpretation of specific provisions of the late Mr Spangenberg’s Will.

Relevance to the Law of Succession

This case sets out guiding principles in the interpretation of wills.  

Summary of the Disputed Provisions of the Will

The disputed clause of the deceased’s Will, stated that he would leave his plots 234 and 741 to his daughters, subject to a right of habitatio in favour of his spouse until her death or remarriage, whichever occurred first.

Detailed Description of the Facts Leading up to the Case

The late Mr Spangenberg executed a Will in which he left his two plots, 234 and 741, to his daughters, subject to the right of habitatio in favour of his wife. The deceased and his children informally agreed to divide plot 741 among all three children.

Both daughters had their homes on plot 741, which their late father had built for them. Their brother had built flatlets on his portion of plot 741, which he was renting out.

Following the death of the late Mr Spangenberg, disputes arose between the Spangenberg siblings and Mr Engelbrecht, the executor of the deceased’s estate, regarding the payment of rentals on plot 741.

The matter culminated in court, where the high court made the following declaratory order:

  • Mrs Spangenberg’s right of habitatio extends to both plots 234 and 741.
  • Mrs Spangenberg’s right of habitatio includes the right to lease and sub-lease the buildings situated on the property and the rental proceeds generated from the properties.
  • No one may occupy the properties without the consent of Mrs Spangenberg.

Unhappy with this decision, the Spangenberg siblings appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Chronological Order of Events

1985 – The deceased concluded an antenuptial contract with his wife, Mrs Spangenberg, which granted Mrs Spangenberg the right of habitatio over plot 243.

1991 – The deceased and his three children informally agreed to allocate different portions of plot 741 to all three children.

1992 – The deceased executed his will granting Mrs Spangenberg the right of habitatio over plot 741 and plot 243.

1996 – The deceased built and paid for a house on plot 741 for one of his daughters who continued to live there at the time of the trial. The deceased’s son had built flatlets on his portion of plot 741 to rent out.

1998 – The deceased built and paid for a house for his other daughter on plot 741.

2009 – The deceased requested his son to build a storage facility for himself on plot 741 and move his equipment to there from plot 243.

2010 – The deceased passed away.

Relationship Between the Parties Involved

Mr Spangenberg, Ms van der Westhuizen and Ms La Kock are all adult children of the deceased. Mrs Spangenberg is the widow of the deceased and stepmother to the deceased’s children. Mr Engelbrecht is the executor of the deceased’s estate.

Issues to be Determined

The court had to determine the correct interpretation of the disputed clause of the deceased’s Will.

The central issue was whether or not Mrs Spangenberg’s right of habitatio included an entitlement to all the benefits connected with the property, including the rental income for the properties situated on the two plots.

Summary of the Arguments Made by Both Parties

Mrs Spangenberg and the executor argued that Mrs Spangenberg’s right of habitatio over the two plots also entitled her to all the benefits associated with the property, including the rental income for all the properties on the plots.

They further argued that the disputed clause in the will was explicit and had no ambiguity. Therefore, there was no need to bring external evidence to determine the meaning of the clause.

The Spangenberg siblings argued that it could not have been their father’s intention to grant Mrs Spangenberg a habitatio over plot 741 because they were each given a portion of the plot and it was already in use by each sibling.

The daughters had their homes, and the son had rental flatlets there.

They further argued that according to the antenuptial agreement between the deceased and Mrs Spangenberg, Mrs Spangenberg would have the right of habitatio over plot 243 until her death.

They also argued that the habitatio should only apply to plot 243 as this is where the matrimonial property was situated.

They contended that the Will was ambiguous and uncertain because of the surrounding circumstances.

They submitted that if the court considered the chronology of events and the surrounding circumstances, it would find that it would go without saying that the deceased did not intend to grant Mrs Spangenberg a habitatio over plot 741.

Evaluation of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Each Argument

The court agreed with Mrs Spangenberg and the executor that there was no ambiguity in the will and that there was, therefore, no place for introducing surrounding circumstances.

The court dismissed the argument of surrounding circumstances made by the Spangenberg siblings because the deceased was always fully aware of the developments on plot 741.

He executed his Will after the agreement with his children to allocate each a portion of land on plot 741.

Discussion of the Relevant Law

The court confirmed the following established principles with reference to case law regarding the interpretation of a Will.

  • The right of ownership gives people the freedom to dispose of their property in whatever way they choose if it is in line with the law. This is referred to as “freedom of testation”.
  • A court’s function in interpreting a Will is to seek and give effect to the wishes of the deceased as expressed in the Will.
  • The court may hear evidence to identify the subject or object of disposition.
  • The court may not hear evidence only meant to contradict the deceased’s clearly expressed intention in the will.
  • A court must try its best to determine the intention of the deceased from the wording of the will, even if the will is badly worded.
  • In trying to ascertain the wishes of the deceased, the will must be read considering the circumstances prevailing at its execution.
  • An implied term can be incorporated into a will only if it is so self-evident as to go without saying.
  • When interpreting a will, consideration must be given to the language, context, purpose and material known to those responsible for its production.

Court’s Decision and Order

The court dismissed the appeal.

Therefore, the court decided that Mrs Spangenberg’s habitatio extended to both plots of land and included the rental proceeds generated from the two properties.

Explanation of the Reasoning Behind the Decision

The court found the wording of the disputed clause in the deceased’s Will is clear and unambiguous.

It also said that the argument of surrounding circumstances raised by the siblings ignores the clear wording of the Will.

The court further said that the deceased probably included plot 741 as part of Mrs Spangenberg’s habitatioto see to the financial well-being and maintenance of Mrs Spangenberg.

Implications for the Law of Succession

This case reiterated the principle of freedom of testation and clarified that where the wording in a will is unambiguous, there is no place to introduce surrounding circumstances.

Lessons to be Learned from the Case for Potential Clients

Individuals who have executed a Will can be confident that the court will give effect to their wishes as expressed in the wording of their Will.

Beneficiaries must be aware that they may not introduce evidence meant to contradict the clearly expressed intention of the deceased as reflected in the Will.

Recommendations for Individuals Facing Similar Situations

Individuals with any questions regarding Wills are encouraged to seek legal advice.

Judges and Legal Teams

Coram: PETSE AP, MBATHA, MATOJANE and WEINER JJA and MALI AJA

For the appellant: B Knoetze SC (with Boonzaier)

Instructed by: Honey Attorneys, Bloemfontein

For respondent: H van Zyl (heads of argument prepared by HE De La Rey)

Instructed by: Kramer Weihmann Attorneys, Bloemfontein

Read More: 

Spangenberg and Others

Why you Must Have a Will (Pro’s and Con’s)

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