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Simplifying Language in the Law

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Much of the law we see today was written three, four, or five decades earlier, at the least. Language, however, has since rapidly changed. In today’s world, the average reader does not have the patience (nor, in many instances, the ability) to read Faulknerian language to see whether they have standing to evict a tenant or the right to inherit from an intestate estate. This creates a disconnect between citizens and the judiciary.

Rewriting the Law

Law students are excellent candidates to become future lawmakers and writers but also current rewriters of the law. By rewriting the law into simpler terms while staying faithful to the original message, we can create lawbooks that resemble fewer bricks and more like slim brochures or infographics. Simplifying the language would also increase public access and awareness, thus further decreasing the extremely wide gap of inequality and disconnect between citizens and the judiciary.

An Example of Revision

To illustrate the benefit of revision, let’s examine New Jersey’s law on intestate succession for spouses and domestic partners. When someone dies without a will, their estate is referred to as “intestate.” How their estate is divided is determined by rules of intestate succession.

New Jersey Statute 3B:5-3(b) states that:

The intestate share of the surviving spouse or domestic partner is:

a. The entire intestate estate if:

(1) No descendant or parent of the decedent survives the decedent;  or

(2) All of the decedent’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or domestic partner and there is no other descendant of the surviving spouse or domestic partner who survives the decedent;

b. The first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus three-fourths of any balance of the intestate estate, if no descendant of the decedent survives the decedent, but a parent of the decedent survives the decedent;

c. The first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate:

(1) If all of the decedent’s surviving descendants are also descendants of the surviving spouse or domestic partner and the surviving spouse or domestic partner has one or more surviving descendants who are not descendants of the decedent;  or

(2) If one or more of the decedent’s surviving descendants is not a descendant of the surviving spouse or domestic partner.

After reading the above statute, consider the following rewriting:

If the decedent has a surviving spouse/domestic partner, they will inherit a certain percentage depending on whether (a), (b), or (c) applies:

(a) The entire estate (100%) if:

  1. The decedent had no children, nor parents alive, at the time of death; or
  2. The surviving spouse/domestic partner had all their children with the decedent, or, if they had children however with other people, those children predeceased the decedent.

(b) If the decedent did not have children, or, if they did have children but their children predeceased them, and a parent of the decedent survives the decedent, then:

  • The surviving spouse/domestic partner will get the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus three-fourths (3/4ths) of any balance of the estate.
  • The parent(s) shall receive the remainder

(c) If all of the decedent’s children are also the natural children of the surviving spouse/domestic partner and the surviving spouse/domestic partner has one or more surviving children who are not children of the decedent (so children with another person), then:

  • the surviving spouse/domestic partner will get the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000.00 nor more than $200,000.00, plus one-half (½) of the balance of the estate.

While not shorter in word count (the original has 186 words versus 203 from the revised), the language is far simpler and more coherent.

I removed the word “intestate” as it is not commonly used vocabulary. People typically say “without a will,” so keeping that language made more sense.

I also replaced the word “descendants” with “children.” “Descendants” is also an archaic word for “children” and presents too much ambiguity. Further, it has a similar appearance to “decedents,” and using them together in the same sentences presents a challenge to the average reader.

Finally, instead of merely writing “surviving spouse or domestic partner,” which is often repeated in the same sentence, I underlined the word to identify it more clearly as a single variable.

Overall, the revision creates a more visually friendly replication of the text: by underlining, italicizing, and categorizing more clearly, the reading is far more accessible to the average reader. Perhaps if this revision is appealing, we should consider updating other judicial language to a more readable format.

Elia Kazan Elia Kazan is a practicing attorney in the State of New Jersey. He completed his JD at The Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in 2021. He may be reached at ekazan93@gmail.com.