As a NY estate lawyer with more than two decades of experience litigating NY estates on behalf of New Yorkers this is always one of the more difficult inquiries we have to field. While nobody ever wants to think they were disinherited from their loved one’s NY estate intentionally even if the decedent may have had their reasons, many times that is the case. While most NY wills are found to be properly executed, valid and free from undue influence it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY estate lawyer anyway.
The two most commonly utilized legal principles exercised when contesting a NY will are due execution and undue influence. When someone brings a potential NY will contest case to me the first thing I do is to examine the document itself. Is the document an original and if so was the NY will drafted by a NY estate attorney and its execution supervised by that NY estate lawyer as well? NY wills drafted and supervised by a NY estate lawyer benefit from the presumption of validity supporting the finding of Due Execution and Testamentary Capacity thus shifting the burden away from the proponent of the will and onto anyone objecting to the document. This puts any potential Objectant at a great disadvantage. The next thing any NY estate lawyer will want to know is how soon after the document’s execution did the testator pass?
When a NY will is executed within 30 days of the decedent’s passing the NY will is considered a “death bed” will and may draw an inference of diminished capacity giving rise to undue influence from Courts. Undue influence is a NY estate lawyer’s more widely utilized avenues of attack in the contesting of NY wills as it is a broad term encompassing many types of activities. Pursuant to the NY estate law proving undue influence requires the objectant to demonstrate how the decedent was actually constrained to act against their own free will. Additionally the objectant must establish the motive and opportunity when and where the offending party would have coerced the testator into drafting a NY will contrary to their personal intent. It should also be noted that a NY estate lawyer cannot just make speculative or conclusory allegations of undue influence but must provide the Court actual proof.
Estate of Harlan Douglas
Recently the $1 billion dollar estate of real estate developer Harlan Douglass was litigated in a five day bench trial. When Harlan passed away he left behind three children Harley, Stacey and Lancze. It was Harley who objected to his father’s will and testamentary trust which were changed just prior to his father’s death in 2019. The documents in question were drafted in August of 2019 disinheriting Harley from his father’s will and trust, giving his brother Lancze a $200 million dollar windfall. The testimony during the five day bench trial revealed that Harlan Douglass’s cognitive abilities were in severe decline at the time of the documents execution. In fact Harlan’s own attorney testified that Harlan who had been to her offices many times, became lost, bewildered and scared on the way to their meeting to execute the amendments to the will and trust, signifying diminished capacity.
At the 5 day bench trial’s conclusion the Court set aside the testamentary trust and will which would have essentially disinherited Harley Douglass. The judge concluding that Harlan Douglass being “senior and frail of mind” had lacked the testamentary capacity at the time of the documents’ execution. The Court also found that Harlan Douglass’s diminished capacity made the decedent more susceptible to the undue influence which had been wielded by his son Lancze.
To succeed in a NY will contest you usually need to prove that either the document was improperly executed or the product of undue influence. Most NY estate lawyers will tell you proving undue influence could be deceptively difficult. Unless the decedent’s mental capacity has become diminished to the point they cannot even find their way to their own lawyer’s offices, you may have a hard time overturning a NY will. In one NY will contest we successfully proved that the decedent could not have executed his own NY will because he was in a coma while lying in the ICU of a NY hospital. I do not want to discourage anyone from challenging a testamentary instrument but you should know these are the levels of fact you need to successfully prove undue influence within a NY estate.
If you think a family member may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY will contest lawyer to see if it amounts to undue influence or fraud. Feel free to call the NYC will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NYC 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, Richmond, Rockland, Nassau, Orange and Dutchess.