What is a will construction proceeding under the NY estate law? Estate of Tom Petty

What is a construction proceeding under the NY estate law? Estate of Tom Petty

On occasions, a NY estate lawyer will come across a testamentary instrument, also known as a will, which for lack of a better term makes no sense. Assuming the NY will was actually drafted and its execution supervised by a licensed NY estate lawyer, one would think the document would be clearly written and intelligible.  However, for myriad reasons, occasionally we come across a NY will that reads more like a riddle from the passages of Homer’s Odyssey than a NY will.  For this reason, section 1420 of the NY estate law provides that any, either fiduciary or interested person listed in the NY will, may petition the Surrogate’s Court to make a determination of the construction or meaning of any and all ambiguous language within the instrument that would effect the NY estate’s distribution.   

As a NY estate lawyer, with two decades of experience drafting NY wills, my paramount concern when drafting such instruments is clarity.  If a Queens estate lawyer cannot clearly decipher the terms of my work how can I expect my client to understand what he or she may be signing?  The answer is I can not.   Therefore, NY estate lawyers should go to great lengths to keep terms within their NY wills as simple as possible.  NY estate law can get very complicated very quickly, there is no need for a Queens estate lawyer to create any additional complexities than those that already exist. Unfortunately, Queens estate lawyers sometimes get carried away with themselves when drafting NY wills requiring the Surrogate’s Court to make a legal determination within a construction proceeding regarding the instrument’s meaning or validity.  

Customarily, the NY estate law gives great weight and consideration to the words contained within NY wills as written.  As such, only where the testator’s intent cannot be clearly determined from the NY will with some degree of certainty will Surrogate’s Courts look to external evidence to decipher and decrypt the true intent of the document’s language as per Martin’s Will, 255 NY 248 (NY Surr. Crt. 1931).

A common issue NY estate lawyers will encounter is where the testator fails to dispose their entire NY estate within their will.  For example, suppose the testator leaves 75% of his assets to A, B, C and D, but fails to mention who is to receive the remaining 25% of their NY estate.  This is a classic case where we as Queens estate lawyers would bring an SCPA 1420 construction proceeding to determine who is to receive the remaining portion of the decedent’s estate under the anti-lapse statue.  In such situations Courts will always distribute any portion of NY estate funds not designated within a will to the decedent’s next of kin by intestacy pursuant to  Estate of Shannon, 154 Misc. 2d (Nass Surr. Crt.  1992).  According to the NY estate law, it is not up to the Surrogate’s Courts to guess or assume who is to receive proceeds of a NY estate not specifically devised in a NY will.  Rather the courts role in such instances is to distribute said proceeds, not mentioned in the will, as if there was no NY will to assure a just and equitable result.

Estate of Tom Petty

When referring to rock stars we are quick to throw the term legend around.  However when it comes to Tom Petty there is little doubt as to his legendary status. During his acclaimed career spanning six decades, Tom Petty was a trifecta of talent winning awards as a singer, multi-instrumentalist, song writer, record producer and even actor.  Sadly, when Tom Petty passed at the age of 66 years of age on October 2, 2017, of an accidental Fentanyl overdose he left behinda  $100 million dollar legacy and career which was still reaching new heights.  Petty also leaves behind two daughters Adria and Annakim, from his first wife whom were divorced in 1996.  In 2001, Petty married second wife Dana York who is now widowed.  Unfortunately Tom Petty also leaves behind an estate embroiled in controversy thanks to the ambiguous wording in his testamentary trust which is now costing his estate millions and millions of dollars.

Within Petty’s testamentary instruments he grants his widow Dana York, the appointment of sole trustee of his estate.  In doing so Petty also directs that his widow York control his catalog of songs and royalties with “equal participation” with his daughters, Adria and Annakim.  While York has interpreted equal participation to mean 50% control should rest with her as trustee and Petty’s two daughters should each share the remaining 50% of control over the estate assets. Unfortunately, York’s step daughters share a very different interpretation.  Petty’s daughters assert that York, and each daughter possess 33% control individually and that Petty’s widow York is in fact a minority stake holder in the trust. 

Perhaps York’s interpretation is correct and Petty meant for her to have 50% control over his estate or perhaps not.  However with several new Tom Petty compilation albums on hold pending the outcome of this estate litigation, this issue is becoming a multi-million dollar estate issue.  Without a clear understanding of how to proceed, who has artistic licensing control and who does not, the estate litigation within Tom Petty’s Estate will only grow.  This is a classic estate construction proceeding issue and like so many others, will rest on the interpretation of a few ambiguous or contradictory words.  In the meantime, in an effort to amicably resolve this estate without any further monetary damage, York has petitioned the Court to interpret the language of the instrument itself by appointing one official individual to manage Tom Petty’s estate.  Unfortunately, for the reasons stated above, Surrogate’s Courts are reluctant to rewrite wills even where their language is obscure.  As such, it is unclear how this estate issue will be resolved.

If you think a family member or friend that may have an issue with a NY will it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY estate lawyer to see if it amounts to an issue worth litigating.  Feel free to call the NY will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444.   Our Queens estate lawyers have more than 60 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.

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