Maryland follows the plain meaning rule that a will’s meaning should be determined primarily from its language read in the light of the surrounding circumstances at the time it was made. See Jones v. Holloway, 183 Md. 40, 43, 36 A.2d 551 (1944). Accordingly, “[i]t is a fundamental principle that where the language of a will is plain and unambiguous, no extrinsic evidence is admissible to show that the testator’s intention was different from that which the will discloses.” Id. at 47. Any evidence intended to modify the language of an unambigious will is contrary to Maryland law. See Md. Code Ann., Est. & Trusts § 4-102.
The plain meaning rule attempts to impose an objective standard unto the process of will interpretation by prohibiting extrinsic evidence unless an ambiguity is introduced. The rule is founded on the shaky principal that words have distinct meanings: “[It is a] lawyer’s Paradise, where all words have a fixed, precisely ascertained meaning, and where, if the writer has been careful, a lawyer having a document referred to him may sit in his chair, inspect the text, and answer all questions without raising his eyes…but the fatal necessity of looking outside the text in order to identify persons and things, tends steadily to destroy such illusion and to reveal the essential imperfection of language, whether spoken or written.” James B. Thayer, A Preliminary Treatise On Evidence at the Common Law 428 (1898). See also John H. Wigmore, Evidence § 2462 (1981) (“The plain meaning is simply the meaning of the people who did not write the document. The fallacy consists in assuming that there is or ever can be some one, real or absolute meaning. In truth there can be only some person’s meaning; and that person, whose meaning the law is seeking, is the writer of the document.”).
In Maryland, terms of art are given their technical meaning if used by a lawyer but otherwise given the common meaning of the term:
“[W]here a will is drawn by one learned in the law and skilled in the use of its terminology, the words employed will ordinarily be given their accustomed technical meaning, but where it is drawn by a layman the language used may be given the meaning it would commonly have to a person in his situation. [Citations omitted].”
Buchwald v. Buchwald, 175 Md. 103, 111, 199 A. 795 (1938).
The plain meaning rule underlies the ruling in Veditz v. Athey, 239 Md. 435, 212 A.2d 115 (1965). In Veditz the testatrix had a will and two codicils. The first codicil added a devise of real property to her favorite niece; the second codicil made no reference to the first codicil but altered the section of the will which was amended by the first codicil to include the devise. Thus, the second codicil did not provide for the property to go to the niece. The trial court held that the second codicil revoked those provisions in the will, including the amendment by the first codicil, so that the niece did not receive the real property. The trial court refused to admit testimony that this was not the testatrix’s intention. The Court of Appeals upheld the exclusion of this evidence:
“[W]here the intention of the testator clearly appears from the words used in the testamentary documents, extrinsic evidence that something different was meant than that which the language imports is inadmissible. The [trial] court ruled further that no latent ambiguity exists in the testamentary documents in this case. . . .It is true, as a general legal principal, that a word used in a testamentary document does not necessarily have a fixed and unalterable meaning; the testator is entitled to use words as he pleases to make his meaning clear. [Citations omitted]. ‘Even where technical words are used, though the testator will be ordinarily presumed to have used them in their legal sense, a different meaning will be given to them when the context clearly indicates that such technical import would defeat his manifest intention.’ Albert v. Albert, 68 Md. 352, 366, 12 A. 11 (1888). This principal is only a corollary of the basic doctrine that the testator’s intent, when clearly expressed in a testamentary document must prevail.”
Id. at 441-445.
The Court of Appeals was split five to three over the Veditz judgment. The dissent argued that a rule of construction (in this case, the plain meaning rule) should not override the court’s essential goal of determining the intention of the testator:
“The majority, by applying a rule of construction rather than the process of interpretation in construing the Last Will and Testament of Mahilda Held, deceased, and the codicils thereto, have, in my opinion, unwittingly rewritten the testamentary disposition of a one-half interest in the home of the testatrix. To use an apt colloquialism, they have put the cart before the horse. . . . The interpretation of a will involves the process of ascertaining, from a reading of all the testamentary writings, and, if necessary, a consideration of extrinsic evidence pertinent thereto, the meaning or intention of the testator as expressed in the will and codicils…A rule of construction, on the other hand, since it seeks to assign an intent to the words used, necessarily involves an attempt to formulate a permissible intent for the testator by the use of presumptions. This process should not be resorted to, however, unless the intention of the testator as to a particular devise or bequest is doubtful or uncertain and therefore inconclusive. [Citations omitted].”
Id at 450.
Garner v. Garner, 167 Md. 423, 173 A. 386 (1934), involved two wills which were practically identical. The first will was executed many years before the decedent’s death and left all of his property to his wife. The second will had the same disposition to the wife but did not explicitly revoke the prior will. The decedent’s brother brought an action to caveat claiming that the second will was the product of fraud. Specifically, the brother claimed that the decedent intended to change his will to provide first for charitable bequests and then to divide the remaining property equally between his surviving spouse and the caveators. The caveators alleged that the decedent’s wife mislead the decedent into believing that he had accomplished this change by executing the second will. [Apparently, the testator could not read English]. The court was forced to determine whether the second will could invalid with regards to its dispositional provisions yet operate to revoke the first will as allegedly intended by the decedent. The court held that parol evidence could not be used to establish the revocation of the earlier will:
“Parol evidence might, of course, be introduced to establish fraud in procurement of execution of a will, and might cause the avoidance of a will or of some of its dispositions…But avoidance of a written form of disposition, and installation in its place of another, intended disposition, are different things, which call into play quite different requirements of proof. Only in a writing can a testator’s revoking disposition be found, and in the place of an avoided written disposition nothing could be inserted by parol.”
Id. at 428.
The Restatement (Third) of Prop.: Donative Transfers § 12.1 permits certain mistakes to be corrected:
“A donative document, though unambiguous, may be reformed to conform the text to the donor’s intention if it is established by clear and convincing evidence (1) that a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement, affected specific terms of the document; and (2) what the donor’s intention was. In determining whether these elements have been established by clear and convincing evidence, direct evidence of intention contradicting the plain meaning of the text as well as other evidence of intention may be considered.