Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Armchair Rule Definition:

A rule of interpretation that a judge, called upon to interpret an otherwise unclear legal document, shall take into account the circumstances in which the document was created.

In Dobson Estate v. Dobson, 2000, published at 32 Estates & Trusts Reports, 2nd Series, page 62, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Justice O'Connor presiding, stated:

"Where the testator's intention cannot be ascertained from the plain meaning of the words used the court may consider the surrounding circumstances known to the testator when he made his will -- the so-called Armchair rule. That is, the court may sit in the armchair of the testator, assume the knowledge he had of the extent his assets, the size and makeup of his family and his relationship to its members, so far as such things can be ascertained by the evidence."

In Re Estate of Douglas Carson Smith, Madam Justice Arnold-Bailey adopted these words:

"The guiding principle is that to interpret a will the court must first look to its language. Only if the court cannot ascertain the intention of the testator should it look beyond the will itself, in which case the armchair rule applies. This principle is ... as follows: if, in the first instance, the testator’s intention cannot be discerned from the will itself, then, since the testator must be taken to have used the language of the will in view of the surrounding circumstances known to him at the time when he made his will, evidence of such circumstances is necessarily admissible, at least insofar as it corresponds to the facts and circumstances referred to in the will....

"Each Judge must endeavour to place himself in the position of the testator at the time when the last will and testament was made. He should concentrate his thoughts on the circumstances which then existed and which might reasonably be expected to influence the testator in the disposition of his property. He must give due weight to those circumstances in so far as they bear on the intention of the testator. He should then study the whole contents of the will and, after full consideration of all the provisions and language used therein, try to find what intention was in the mind of the testator. When an opinion has been formed as to that intention, the Court should strive to give effect to it and should do so unless there is some rule or principle of law that prohibits it from doing so."

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