Let’s Eat Grandma! Let’s Eat, Grandma!
(Commas save lives)

I saw this t-shirt in the Sky Mall magazine a few years back and completely cracked up. Crazy as it may seem, punctuation, grammar, and correct usage of legal words and phrases can save thousands of dollars on litigation and estate administration costs.

For example, last month I had a client whose father had prepared his trust. I’ll call him Jim. Part of Jim’s trust merely stated, “to the babies.” Babies of who you ask? Exactly the right question!

This phrase is completely ambiguous. Did it mean Jim’s children? His grandchildren? The Trustee didn’t know. So they went to court and a judge determined it meant second cousins, twice removed.

Jim’s Trustee had to hire a private investigator to determine whom all the heirs up to 2nd cousins, twice removed included. It has taken several years and tens of thousands of dollars and they have already identified 360 heirs. And they are not even done yet!

At the end of the day, each of the heirs will receive a pittance as the estate has been eaten up by administrative costs. Probably not Jim’s intent.

Punctuation can also be deadly. Back in the early 1800’s the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for two pirates. The conviction turned on how to read the piracy statute that defined this act as “murder or robbery, or any other offence, which, if committed within the body of a county, would, by the laws of the United States, be punishable with death.”

The two men argued that the clause “punishable with death” only applied if the robbery would have been committed within “a county” of the U.S. The prosecution argued that the phrase “punishable with death” only modified the phrase “or any other offence,” so that any robbery or murder committed on the high seas would constitute piracy.

The prosecution won and the two men were put to death! In his dissent, Justice Johnson wrote: “singular as it may appear, it really is the fact in this case, that these men’s lives may depend upon a comma . . . .”

So there you have it. Commas save lives. Or not. But one thing is for certain punctuation, grammar, and choice of words can save thousands of dollars in litigation and administrative costs.