New York Wills Need to Clearly State a Testator’s Estate Plan

Estate Planning Attorneys in Nassau and Westchester, as in all other New York Counties, are well aware that the documents they prepare for clients must have clearly worded provisions.

A Last Will is a testamentary statement as to where and how a decedent’s assets are to be disposed of. In its most fundamental form a Last Will can set forth a number of dispositions. There can be a statement that certain individuals or entities are to receive a specified property or a specified amount of money.

Additionally, the residue or balance of the estate can be disposed of in any number of ways such as by percentages to a number of recipients. Trusts that are created in the Will are called testamentary trusts. These trusts only come into being after the Will is admitted to probate and the trust is funded. InterVivos Trusts are created outside of a Will and can begin to function as soon as they are prepared.

A New York Will also contains provisions for the appointment of Executors, as well as Trustees of any trust created by the Will. Also, Guardians for minor children can be nominated in a Last Will. Beneficiaries and alternate beneficiaries that are named in the Will should be accurately identified by their relation to the decedent and their names should be correctly spelled.

The utmost care is required so that the Will provisions are clearly worded. Such clarity is essential so that the decedent’s intent can be carried out by his or her Executor and Trustee. Where provisions in a Will and/or Trust are confusing or ambiguous, Executors, Trustees, beneficiaries and the Court are left to try and decipher what the decedent really meant and desired regarding the disposition of property. If the interested parties cannot agree as to the document’s meaning then a Court must construe the intent of the testator. In a proceeding for the Construction of a Will the Court does not rewrite Will provisions. Instead, the Court attempts to carry out the intentions of the decedent. Construction proceedings can involve complex issues for probate lawyers and their clients who are Executors and estate beneficiaries.

A recent example of confusing language requiring Court clarification occurred in the case of Matter of Winifred Gooding Brice, decided by Surrogate Edward W. McCarthy III, (Surrogate’s Court, Nassau County) on December 13, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on January 10, 2012.

In Gooding, the decedent had executed a Last Will which was followed by the decedent’s signing six Codicils. A Codicil is essentially an amendment to the original Will. A question of construction arose because there was a contradiction between two codicils concerning the time a certain trust was to terminate.

Gooding shows that in order to avoid inconsistencies between multiple Codicils and a Last Will, it would be preferable to rewrite and revise the entire Last Will and incorporate all of the modifications into a single document that would not be confusing. By re-doing the entire Will, estate planning and estate administration can be streamlined.

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

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