Terminology of Testamentary Gifts (“devise,” “bequest,” “legacy”)

testamentary terms

Translators of English-language wills are often puzzled by the formulaic expression “I give, devise and bequeath,” used when specifying how a testator’s estate should be divided upon his death. Is the expression redundant, or would one of the three verbs actually suffice?

Strictly speaking, a “devise” (verb: “to devise”) is a testamentary gift of real property (bienes inmuebles), the beneficiary of which is known as a “devisee.” In contrast, a “bequest” (verb: “to bequeath”) usually refers to a testamentary gift of personal property (bienes muebles), often excluding money. In modern American usage “devise” is used to denote a testamentary gift of both real and personal property,* although the distinction between “devise” and “bequest” largely persists in British usage. “Legacy” is likewise a gift by will, especially of personal property and often of money, the beneficiary of a legacy being known as a “legatee.” And, of course, devises, bequests and legacies may all be equally described as “testamentary gifts.”

*This may be due, in part, to the fact that the US Uniform Probate Code uses “devise” to denote both real and personal property. Its Section 1-201 General Definitions (10) states that “’Devise,’ when used as a noun means a testamentary disposition of real or personal property and, when used as a verb, means to dispose of real or personal property by will.” Black’s Law Dictionary notes that although “devise” traditionally referred to gifts of real property, in American usage a disposition of any property by will is a “devise.”

(Illustration: website of Sánchez-Gago, Vieira & Gallego Abogados, León, Spain)


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