The Lawletter Vol 44 No 4
Matthew McDavitt—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
The phrase "personal effects" is a descriptor that commonly leads to litigation regarding its usual or intended scope. Unqualified, the word "effects" in a testamentary context generally denotes personal property of any description. Adler v. First-Citizens Bank & Trust Co., 4 N.C. App. 600, 603, 167 S.E.2d 441, 443 (1969). However, pairing the adjective "personal" with the noun "effects" expressly modifies and limits its scope:
The adjective "personal" would be unnecessary and useless if it did not restrict the meaning of "effects," which standing alone would have covered all personalty. . . . [T]he words "personal effects" . . . [usually] cover only those articles of tangible personal property that in their use or intended use had some intimate connection with the person of the testatrix.
Gaston v. Gaston, 320 Mass. 627, 628, 70 N.E.2d 527, 528 (1947). Thus, "[t]he term 'personal effects' ordinarily does not include cash and property held for investment." Beasley v. Wells, 55 So. 3d 1179, 1185 (Ala. 2010); In re Estate of Stengel, 557 S.W.2d 255 (Mo. Ct. App. 1977) (the term "personal effects" meant tangible property worn or carried about the person or tangible property having some intimate relation to the person of the testatrix; the term did not include the bonds, stocks, savings and loan accounts, cash, coins, or currency).
The term "personal effects" has no settled technical meaning. Its interpretation varies with the setting in which it appears. It is sometimes construed as embracing only tangible property having an intimate relation to the person and is sometimes given a broader meaning.
In re Will of Maurer, 192 Misc. 627, 628, 84 N.Y.S.2d 153, 154 (Sur. Ct. 1948).
Conversely, though, the general meaning of the descriptor "personal effects" may encompass other classes of personalty where the will language expressly broadens the scope of the phrase. In re Estate of Douglass, 70 Cal. App. 2d 279, 161 P.2d 66 (1945) (a will provision disposing of "all of the rest of my personal effects of every kind and description" applied to the testator's automobiles); cf. In re Benson's Estate, 110 Mont. 25, 98 P.2d 868, 871 (1940) ("While 'personal effects' have sometimes been held to include all personal property, it cannot be so construed in this will.").
Thus, the majority rule nationally is that a bequest of "personal effects" encompasses solely that personal property like wallets, purses, and wristwatches, that was carried or worn by the testator personally day-to-day, so long as such items were not specifically bequeathed or separated out as a distinct category elsewhere in the will language.