What’s that strange word in my Power of Attorney?

by | Dec 16, 2012 | Estate Planning |

I try to write as clearly and simply as possible. However, there are certain obscure words and phrases, imbedded in the English language and the legal documents we use every day, that I can’t eliminate.

Chattels is the word I get the most client questions about. The word refers to personal property (furniture, tools, clothing), as opposed to real property (land). It’s related to the word cattle, which makes sense when you think about the Middle Ages, where the only personal property people cared much about was their livestock.

Our documents also contain repetitive phrases like give, devise, and bequeath, and rest, residue, and remainder, in addition to the obvious Will and Testament. These phrases gained traction over the years due to the changing nature of the English language.

As linguist David Crystal describes in his “Story of English in 100 Words,”

“It must have been quite hard, being a lawyer in the Middle Ages in England. Originally, all your law books would have been in Latin. Then, in the 13th century, they start being written in French. Then along comes English. Lawyers had a problem….How to choose?

“If someone decided to leave all his property and possessions to a relative, should the legal document talk about his goods, using the Old English word, or his chattels, using the Old French word? The lawyers thought up an ingenious solution. They would use both. If the document said goods and chattels, they would be covered against all eventualities.”

Now, because the English language is a melting pot of different cultures and words, I can make my Last Will and Testament, in which I give, devise, and bequeath, all the rest, residue, and remainder, of my property, goods, and chattels. And no, lawyers don’t get paid by the word any more!