New York Wills Should Be Written to Avoid Ambiguity

New York estate planning lawyers are aware of the need to prepare estate planning documents with clear and unambiguous language. There are many types of papers that require clarity of language. These include Last Wills, Living Trusts, Living Wills and Health Care Proxies.

The use of specific provisions contained in documents such as a Last Will and Living Trust is most critical since these papers reflect a person’s directions and intent regarding the disposition of assets. There may be various provisions in a Will or Trust that may provide for a gift of a certain sum of money to a named individual. There may also be more complex provisions that provide for disposition in a trust with various conditions or alternatives in the event individuals become deceased. Dispositions, especially to a surviving spouse may have certain tax consequences and there may be specific Will clauses that allocate the burden of paying estate taxes against particular bequests.

The use of definitive and non-confusing language serves to provide maximum effect to a testator’s or creator’s intent and prevents post-death confusion and disputes regarding the meaning of the language contained in the document.

The New York Surrogate’s Courts have been the forum of many cases where the wording in a Will or Trust has been the subject of Estate Litigation. Two recent cases provide examples of such estate disputes and the manner in which a Court might view such issues. In general, where language in a document is unclear, a “construction proceeding” is needed to resolve the issue. Recently, Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson was presented with a petition for a Will construction in Will of Edwin C. Scheurer. In a decision dated September 16, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on September 23, 2013, Surrogate Anderson found that there was no ambiguity in the Will provisions that eliminated a bequest to one of the decedent’s grandchildren. Since the Will language was not ambiguous, the Court refused to allow any extrinsic or outside evidence to be used to interpret the testator’s intent.

A different result was reached, however, in In Re Estate of Phillips, 957 N.Y.S. 2d 778 (4th Dept. 2012), where the Appellate Division determined that the language in the Will was unclear and required that extrinsic evidence be used to determine the testator’s intent. Phillips is instructive since it presents a situation that at first glance would not cause a Surrogate’s Court Litigation. The Will in Phillips contained a provision whereby the testator gave his residence “and the plot of land appurtenant thereto” to his live-in girlfriend. A dispute arose as to whether the language “and the plot of land appurtenant thereto” referred to the land upon which the residence was built or to another plot of land that was adjacent to the residence and the land upon which it was situated. The Court found the language to be ambiguous and referred the case back to the Surrogate for further proceedings to consider the surrounding evidence of the decedent’s intent.

Estate planning in New York requires the creation of a number of different documents. While it is important to ascertain the intention and desire of the person who is creating the Will or Trust, it is equally necessary to express all intentions and directions in clear and unambiguous language to avoid Will Disputes and dissention between beneficiaries.

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. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a New York estate or beneficiary designation, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 or email:, for an initial consultation.

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