The Provisions of a New York Will Can Only be Reformed by the Court if Found to be a Mistake or Create a Negative Tax Result

nycSurrogatesEstate planning in New York is important for the proper disposition of a person’s assets.  Planning an estate encompasses a broad array of considerations.  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published many articles on this topic.  Initially, the preparation of a Last Will and Testament is the central document when creating a plan.  A Will disposes of assets that are owned by a testator at death in his name alone.  Thus, assets which pass automatically to others by operation of law such as joint property or items which have designated beneficiaries such as retirement accounts, life insurance or other pay on death funds, are not generally controlled by the terms of a Will as long as the beneficiary survives a decedent.

In view of various rules regarding property disposition, it is imperative that any estate plan take into account the ownership and title of assets which are intended to be disposed of under a Will.  A recent Manhattan estate case, decided by Manhattan Surrogate Rita Mella on February 23, 2023 entitled Estate of McAulay, demonstrates the issues that may arise when a decedent’s asset ownership conflicts with the provisions of a Will.

In McAulay, the terms of a Will provided for equal distribution of a portion of the decedent’s residuary estate to four (4) individuals.  At the time of death, the decedent owned certain California real estate with one of the beneficiaries as joint tenants.  As a result, the California property passed to the joint owner by operation of law outside of the Will.  An issue was raised as to whether the value of the California real estate should reduce the amount of the share of the residue the beneficiary was to receive.

After reviewing the language in the Will, the Court found that there was no basis to reduce the beneficiary’s share.  The Surrogate noted that the Court was mandated to follow the words in the Will and could not change them when they were clear and definite.  The Court went on to find that a Will could be reformed only when there was a clear mistake evident from the Will itself or if there was a tax consequence having a negative estate impact.

As can be seen from McAulay, estate litigation can result from provisions in documents which may be unclear due to the language itself or other circumstances.  Estate planning requires a complete review of a person’s intentions, circumstances and assets.  In addition to a Will, a person may prepare a Living Trust, a Power of Attorney, and a Health Care Proxy.  All of these papers should be reviewed for accuracy and that the person’s intentions are clearly set forth.

I have been representing clients in estate planning matters and Surrogate’s Court proceedings for over 40 years.  These cases may arise in the Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or other counties.  Do you have an estate planning, Will or probate issue?  Call Me Now for a free confidential review of your estate matter.  We offer reasonable and flexible fee arrangements and personal representation.

New York Trusts and Estates Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 40 years resolve issues relating to guardianship and probate and estate settlement throughout New York City including the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau and Suffolk County.  If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial free consultation.

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