New York Wills Need to Have Clearly Defined Language

Estate Planning in New York involves the preparation of a number of different papers. Included among these documents is a Last Will and Testament. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many articles concerning the importance of preparing a Last Will as well as the need for the Will to clearly express a person’s intentions.

When a person takes the time and effort to prepare a Will it is essential that the document clearly provide the benefits that the creator wants to put into effect upon death. A New York Estate attorney typically works closely with his clients to fully understand the assets and estate plan that is to be incorporated into the Will document.Unfortunately, there are instances when the wording in a Will appears unclear or ambiguous.  The uncertainty created by imprecise Will provisions can lead to estate litigation and controversies in the Surrogate’s Court.  A recent example of problems created by a confusing Will provision is shown in a recent probate case in the Queens Surrogate’s Court.  In Matter of Bonanno, decided by Queens Surrogate Peter Kelly on February 2, 2016, the decedent’s Will contained a provision whereby the decedent gave her house to her four children but then directed that the house not be sold during the time when any single and unmarried child resided in the property.   The decedent further stated that the house could be sold when all of the children were either married or when they all lived somewhere else.

At the time of the Court proceeding only one of the decedent’s four children remained in the house. The proceeding sought a Court construction or interpretation of the Will provision to the effect that the four children owned the house without any restrictions on the right to sell it. After a full review the Court found that the restrictions on the sale of the house were valid and that the sale of the house would have to await the satisfaction of the occupancy conditions.

While the Court’s decision in Bonanno reflected the decedent’s intention to provide a place to live for any of the decedent’s single children, the estate plan prevented the rest of the children from obtaining any benefit from the house for an indefinite period of time. This result may not have been the testator’s long-term intention. The important consideration that can be learned from Bonanno is to fully consider both the short term and long term impact of Will provisions.

I have represented many clients in connection with preparing their estate plan and Last Will. It is essential that all of the Will clauses and bequests be understood by the testator and any doubts as to the effect a Will disposition may have be resolved in their entirety. Thoughtful consideration of Will language and desired goals must be a part of everyone’s estate plan. If you have a question regarding an estate plan or any Last Will issue, please call me for a free review.

An experienced New York trusts and estates lawyer can assist with guidance for proper Will preparation and execution and Will contests. New York Probate Attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in New York in Trusts and Estates matters and Surrogate’s Court proceedings throughout the past 30 years in Suffolk and Nassau and other counties. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a New York estate matter, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 or email:, for an initial consultation.

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