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At the core of our legal expertise is the advanced interpretation of wills, an area in which the Italian Supreme Court’s Order No. 35807 has set an important milestone, directing our practice towards a hermeneutics that values the complexity of testamentary wills.
The core of the litigation concerned M. P.’s holographic will, in which a significant part of the estate was allocated to M. M. C.
The central issue was the interpretation of the expression “all the money in my possession“, which the plaintiff believed should include, in addition to cash, movable investments and significant shares in companies. The defendants, on the other hand, favoured a more restrictive interpretation.
The non-definitive judgment of the Court of Bergamo had initially accepted the broad interpretation proposed by the plaintiff. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal of Brescia, following an appeal, partially modified this decision, reducing the amount of the legacy and reformulating the interpretation of the will. This decision raised fundamental questions on the interpretation of testamentary wills.
The Italian Supreme Court, in its Order No. 35807 of 22 December 2023, settled an important hermeneutical principle. According to the Court, the interpretation of a will requires an analysis that goes beyond the written text, considering the personality and life context of the testator.
As a matter of fact, the Italian Supreme Court emphasises how the interpretation of testamentary wills is “characterised, with respect to contractual wills, by a more penetrating search, beyond the declaration, for the will of the testator, which, pursuant to Article 1362 of the Italian Civil Code, must be identified by reference to elements intrinsic to the testamentary document, on the basis of the overall examination of the document itself and not of each individual provision, it being possible, where the text of the deed does not reveal with certainty the actual intention of the “de cuius” and the scope of the provision, to have recourse to elements extrinsic to the will, but still referable to the testator, such as, for example, the personality of the same, his mentality, culture or social condition or his living environment, so ex multis Cass. no. 10882/2018“.
Article 1362 of the Italian Civil Code on contracts (i.e. “in interpreting the contract one must investigate what was the common intention of the parties and not limit oneself to the literal meaning of the words”) was used as a reference to emphasise the need for a thorough investigation that integrates the intrinsic elements of the testamentary document with the extrinsic ones related to the testator.
In the case at hand, correctly applying the principles of hermeneutics, the Ermellini held that “the term “money” had been used inasmuch as it was intended to designate not only cash or, in any event, money lying in current accounts, but all that which, although invested in other forms, could easily be converted into money by means of simple accounting operations”.
The heart of the decision therefore concerns the interpretation of the term “money” used in D.D.’s holographic will, which the Court of Cassation held should be interpreted extensively, including not only cash and current accounts, but also other forms of investment easily convertible into money through simple accounting operations. The Court of Cassation identified a contradiction in the ruling of the Brescia Court of Appeal, which, while recognising the broad interpretation of the term ‘money’, excluded certain forms of investment such as shares and bonds from the definition of ‘money’, even though these could be easily converted into money.
This case underlines the importance of an accurate and contextualised interpretation of testamentary dispositions. The Supreme Court’s decision highlights how testamentary hermeneutics must be conducted with a focus on the will of the testator, going beyond the mere literal reading of words.