The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has had numerous posts regarding the benefits of estate planning. When a person dies without a Last Will his estate is subject to the laws of intestacy and is distributed to distributees or heirs at law according to statutory priority. When an estate is planned by the drafting and execution of a Last Will, Living Will, Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney, a person has the opportunity to specifically designate the individuals that he intends to benefit from his estate and who will make decisions regarding his affairs.
In the case of a Will, it is essential to clearly name and identify the intended beneficiaries such as “my son, John Smith” or “my friend, Mary Jones.” It is equally important that a Will and other documents specify contingent beneficiaries and alternative fiduciaries. Since a Will may be signed many years, even decades, before a person dies, these alternative provisions are likely to become the effective directions at the time of death. Therefore, the naming of substitute beneficiaries should not just be an afterthought but must be fully considered and carefully drafted as part of the Will Planning process. Failure to do so may disrupt estate settlement and result in the failure of the testator’s desires being expressed and complied with.
A recent example of the problems caused by not properly providing for contingencies in a Will is demonstrated in the case of Estate of Beatrice Thompson. In a decision dated December 23, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal, Richmond County Surrogate Robert Gigante was presented with motions for summary judgment in a construction proceeding. These types of proceedings are commenced when the Court’s assistance is needed to determine the meaning or effect of unclear or ambiguous terms in a Will. It appears that the decedent wife had written a Will that left her entire estate to her husband. However, the husband pre-deceased the decedent and the Will failed to provide for a disposition of the estate in the event of the husband’s death. The Court denied the motions since it found that questions of fact existed regarding the decedent’s disposition of the estate residue in view of the lack of any specific language disposing of the estate property.
Thompson is a good demonstration of the need for New York Will lawyers to assist their clients and provide documents that explicitly identify contingent beneficiaries. It is equally essential that all Trust and Wills have detailed provisions to cover all assets and dispositions. In a recent case the late Charlie’s Angels star, Farrah Fawcett, left all her artwork to her alma mater. As reported by the Associated Press on December 19, 2013 at HollywoodReporter.com, at the time of her death an Andy Warhol portrait was located in her condominium. However, Ms. Fawcett’s companion, film star Ryan O’Neal, claimed that the portrait really belonged to him. After a trial a jury decided in O’Neal’s favor. The lesson to be learned is that specifying items in a Will or Trust that may belong to others can avoid long and costly Court battles.