What happens when your NY will makes no sense? Construction Proceedings within the NY Estate Law; Estate of Blackburn

As an experienced NY estate lawyer with over two decades of experience litigating NY estates we come across some awfully strange wills.  While it is almost always better to have your NY will drafted by an experienced NY estate lawyer there are still no guarantees.  In fact, some of the wackiest NY wills we have come across were drafted by NY estate lawyers that should have known better.  For example, our offices successfully litigated a NY will contest which practically disinherited our client, decedent’s son, by bequeathing only a nominal inheritance to him while including a no contest clause to deter any NY estate litigation.  However, the NY estate lawyer who drafted the instrument made so many errors our NY will contest lawyers were able to successfully contest the instrument procuring an inheritance for our client exponentially greater than that which was intended by the attorney draftsperson.

When NY wills fail to make sense beneficiaries or people adversely affected by the NY will may bring a construction proceeding pursuant to §1420 of the NY estate law.  In so doing the objectants, parties bringing the proceeding, may obtain a court determination or interpretation as to the validity or meaning of the NY will upon a proper showing of necessity.  One thing to note as per Matter of Zorskas, 18 Misc. (Nass. Surr. Crt. 2007), there is often a construction preference in favor of the surviving spouse by the Surrogate’s Courts within NY construction proceedings. So if there is a dispute as to the meaning of a NY will, Courts will generally favor the interests of the surviving spouse or blood relatives over other outside parties in their interpretations. 

In the NY estate case, Matter of Zorskas, the decedent left real property exclusively to his son while gifting his surviving spouse $100,000.00 in cash.  However, upon decedent’s death, the decedent did not have the $100,000.00 in cash to satisfy this bequest to the surviving spouse. Testator’s son refused to permit the sale of the real property he received in order to satisfy the surviving spouse’s $100,000.00 bequest.  As such, testator’s surviving spouse moved the surrogate’s court for a determination pursuant to a construction proceeding under §1420 of the NY estate law. The surrogate’s court found a constructional preference in favor of the surviving spouse and ordered that her $100,000.00 bequest be paid from the proceeds of the son’s real estate.

Estate of Blackburn

Gideon Blackburn was one of this country’s first large scale evangelists founding the Harpeth Presbyterian Church in 1811.  As a result of his notoriety Gideon Blackburn was granted more than a thousand acres of land across Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi by then President Andrew Jackson.  That same property today, still in the Blackburn family is estimated to be valued in excess of $10 million dollars.  

Gideon’s great, great, great grandson Barry Blackburn Sr. was an estate planning lawyer who passed away in 2014 at the age of 48. Barry was survived by his 21 year old son Barry Blackburn, Jr.  As an estate lawyer Barry Blackburn Sr., drafted his own will leaving his entire estate comprised of the thousand acres of family land handed down for more than two centuries “in trust to his son Barry Blackburn Jr., and then onto Barry Blackburn, Jr.’s children.”  The will went on to read that “if Barry Blackburn, Jr.,” who had no children, “does not survive me, then I bequeath my entire estate to my two nieces and nephew.”  Then Barry Blackburn’s will takes a strange turn stating that “if I should die with no survivors then my estate shall be divided amongst four charitable organizations, Nashville Christian School, Harpeth Presbyterian Church, University of Mississippi Law School and the Beylin Spaniel Rescue.”  

Anytime a lawyer tries to incorporate language that is open to interpretation into a NY will it is almost guaranteeing costly and time consuming NY estate litigation.  And in this paragraph of his own will that stated “if I die with no survivors”, Barry Blackburn Sr. opened the door for the four charities to litigate the meaning of that article in a nearly catastrophic construction proceeding.  

When Barry Blackburn Sr., passed he 2014, he could not predict that his sole survivor and beneficiary of his estate, 21 year old Barry Blackburn, Jr., would pass away tragically the following year in 2015.  The problem with Barry Blackburn Sr.’s will is that it provides that only if his son predeceases him would the estate go to his two nieces and nephew who are ages, 3, 8 and 13.  This allowed the four charities to argue that Barry Blackburn Sr., actually died without any beneficiaries as per his will and that the four charities should now inherit the $10 million estate, not Blackburns, 3, 8 and 13 year old nieces and nephew.  

This is a vicious misinterpretation of Barry Blackburn Sr.’s poorly worded will which nearly cost his young nieces and nephew their portion of this family’s inheritance.  It did not take long for the four charities to pounce all over the meaning of Blackburn’s will within a construction proceeding in an attempt to relieve the children of their inheritance.  During the construction proceeding many witnesses were called to testify that it was Blackburn’s intent to always keep the real estate within the family.  

In the end the surrogate’s court sided with the nieces and nephew adding the words “or died” to the decedent’s will.  As such, instead of the Blackburn will reading “if my son does not survive me, then I bequeath my estate to my two nieces and nephew” it would now read, “if my son does not survive me, or dies, then I bequeath my estate to my two nieces and nephew.”  It’s amazing how the court adding two simple words that Blackburn himself omitted could change the fortunes of his 3, 8 and 13 year old nieces and nephews so drastically. Even Barry Blackburn, Sr., an estate planning attorney, failed to draft a concise will for himself, and instead attempted to incorporate vague language in an effort to overreach control over his own estate.  It is amazing how two simple words, or dies, could alter the fortunes of Blackburn’s two nieces and nephew so drastically.  

As an experienced NY wills lawyer I can tell you it is almost always better to opt for simple, clear and concise language as opposed to vague and wordy.  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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