The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many articles concerning the need for thoughtful and specific estate planning. The many documents that can be used for advanced directives and post-death plans include a Living Trust, Health Care Proxy, Last Will, Living Will and Power of Attorney.
The failure of a person to provide any documented directions or intentions can result in the disposition of assets to unintended beneficiaries through intestacy and disputes regarding a person’s care and property management in the case of incapacity. Even when estate planning documents are put into place, Will provisions that are ambiguous or confusing can result in estate litigation in the form of a Will construction proceeding.
In addition, there are many instances where, despite the preparation and execution of planning documents, disgruntled heirs, relatives and other individuals may claim that the decedent had promised or agreed to provide for them notwithstanding the absence of such provisions in a Will or a Trust. An interesting example of such a situation was presented to the Nassau Surrogate’s Court in Will of Irving Lublin , decided on June 26, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on July 22, 2013. In Lublin Nassau Surrogate Edward McCarty III was presented with a Last Will that left the decedent’s entire estate to the decedent’s wife and son. The decedent’s daughter commenced a lawsuit claiming that her grandfather had an oral agreement with the decedent by which the grandfather agreed to transfer the family business to the decedent and the decedent’s wife. In return the decedent allegedly agreed that he would care for the aggrieved daughter and ensure that she received her share of the business. The daughter now claimed that the business was wrongfully transferred to the decedent’s son.
After reviewing the evidence the Court determined that the alleged oral agreement was too vague to be enforceable. The Court also refused to impose a constructive trust due to the lack of specificity regarding the agreement.
Lublin presents an example of a common situation where individuals have an expectation based upon lifetime promises or understandings with a decedent, and end up being disappointed when those expectations are not adequately expressed in valid and enforceable documents. From an estate planning point of view, if the creator of a Trust or Will desires to benefit a person with a bequest or other property disposition, the Trust or Will should contain very specific provisions regarding the proposed transfer. Similarly, it is always best for a person not to state or infer promises that are not intended to be memorialized in an enforceable document. Such pronouncements can only create expectations for individuals who end up being hurt or dissatisfied upon learning that there have been no written provisions made for their benefit. These circumstances invariably lead to litigation in an estate and unnecessary complications for estate administration.