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JCF Blog

Words Matter

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 1/22/2015
“A wise man hears one word and understands two.” Yiddish Proverb

Back when I was in law school, my professors believed it was important to emphasize certain key lessons when preparing for the practice of law. My Contracts professor had one simple rule: “sue solvent parties!” In Civil Law, hardly a day passed without the professor reminding us that with the world shrinking, studying international law was essential “unless you plan on handling divorce cases in Chillicothe, Ohio, the rest of your life.”

For those of you who did not attend law school, you should know that we spent countless hours learning about and interpreting previous lawsuits and the precedents they set. In my class on Estates and Wills, there was no shortage of examples where an estate went into a prolonged contested probate case because proper planning did not occur during the decedent’s lifetime. Just like my other courses, the Professor imparted a recurring lesson. I remember him say like it was yesterday, “And what did we learn from this case?......Write a will!”

It seemed so simple. During your lifetime, write a will so that your affairs are in order and your loved ones have a clear understanding of your wishes after you are gone. This simple act can save tremendous heartache, grief and even animosity.

While this is a great lesson in and of itself, I’d like to go a step further today.

Many times, even with a will in place, the language contained in it creates ambiguity. What did the decedent really mean when he wrote it? The use of even a single word and its interpretation is critical, especially if the author is not around later to clarify actual intent. And this isn’t just true with estate planning.

At the Foundation, we run across this issue with fund agreements more often than one would think. For example, a well-meaning parent establishes a fund for her children who will one day assume the role of advisors to the fund. In it she states, “It is my hope and expectation that at least 50 percent of the funds distributed annually will go to support arts and culture in Hartford, CT.”

So what did she mean by this? The word “hope” clearly creates an option rather than requirement. But what about “expectation?” I don’t know about you, but I expect my children to do a lot of things. Just because I expect it doesn’t mean it will happen (they are young adults and need to learn to make decisions for themselves, even if it’s not the same one that I would make). If the “hope and expectation” is meant to be a requirement, then the language should not be left open to interpretation. And in the same vein, does Hartford, CT, mean only within the Hartford city limits or does it mean what we currently define as Greater Hartford? My much more talented and smarter wife always reminds me that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Be very clear with intent so that your expectations are met.

One of the most profound outcomes of creating any type of endowment fund is to establish your legacy – the story that you leave for generations to come. We here at the Foundation are here to help. It is important to take a step back and read any legally binding document with a critical eye. Choose words wisely. Is it should or must? Will or may? Healthcare or any health related program? Our staff will sit with you and take the time to understand your hopes and dreams. Our job is to give you the confidence and satisfaction that your goals are met.

While good intentions are important, we must always keep in mind this important lesson: words matter.


Michael Elfenbaum is Senior Program Officer at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. A lawyer by training, he oversees grant making and grant evaluation. He lives in West Hartford with his wife, Anna, and his teenage daughter, while his two sons attend UConn.
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Elliott Tertes
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Excellent blog and sound advice, mark my word.
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