As a NY estate lawyer with two and a half decades of experience drafting, probating and litigating NY estates I am always amazed at how some go about drafting their NY wills. When sitting down with clients, many times when confronted with either simple or complex solutions, human nature almost always gravitates to the latter. For a NY estate lawyer with a concentration on NY estate litigation in particular, or avoiding NY estate litigation when possible, it is up to me to steer clients in the right direction. When drafting a NY estate plan, it is almost always better to adopt simplicity to avoid ambiguity at all costs. While the testator may mean well and have nothing but the best of intentions for his or her beneficiaries, ambiguities almost always create NY estate litigation and the role of a NY estate lawyer is to avoid that.
For instance, one major area of contention within NY estate litigation are specific bequests. By nature clients usually want to leave beneficiaries a percentage of the net proceeds of their NY estate. This eventually leads to a very dark and costly question for the executor of the NY estate to answer, percentage of what? Percentages represent a portion of the total value of the NY estate and parties can litigate the value of a NY estate for years if they cannot agree. Therefore, whenever possible, a NY estate lawyer should remove ambiguity from their NY estates by substituting percentages with certain dollar amounts. Keeping in mind there are many instances where the NY estate will be divided equally among heirs in which case percentages are the more appropriate option. More importantly, as a NY estate lawyer, I am trying to prevent unnecessary NY estate litigation in the form of potential accounting proceedings. Without going into detail, accounting proceedings are tedious, time consuming and most of all costly to any NY estate.
Estate of Robert Keeler
When Robert Keeler passed away in 2002 at age 88, he left behind a wife, children, grandchildren and a sizable estate. Within his will Keeler provides generously for his family, secretary, housekeeper, church as well as Dartmouth College, his alma mater. Unfortunately for Keeler’s Estate, rather than leaving Dartmouth College a fixed amount in his will, he left Dartmouth a percentage amounting to several million dollars. To add further ambiguity to Keeler’s Estate plan, the bequest was predicated “for the sole purpose of upgrading and maintaining its golf course.” The Dartmouth College golf course is depicted above.
Unfortunately for the Robert Keeler Estate, Dartmouth College shut down its golf course in 2020. When asked by the Keeler Estate Dartmouth failed to return any of its unused $3.8 million dollar bequest it received. Rather Dartmouth College requested the Keeler Estate to allow them to keep the endowment for some other use. As a result the Keeler Estate was thrust into litigation for years over this dispute.
In the end the Court ruled Dartmouth College can keep its $3.8 million dollar bequest holding that institutions can change or modify the terms of a testamentary bequest. As such, much to the Estate of Robert Keeler’s dismay, Dartmouth College was allowed to keep the $3.8 million dollar bequest despite having closed their golf course, the donor’s intended use for the bequest.
Making matters worse, the estate for Robert Keeler, who passed away in 2002, is still embroiled in estate litigation more than two decades later accruing exorbitant legal fees, and aggravation. Perhaps most ironic is the fact the decedent Robert Keeler himself was a prominent attorney in his own right. Had I drafted his will I would have advised him against leaving Dartmouth a percentage and leaving such specific directives for the use of the bequest thereby avoiding this litigation completely.
If you are thinking about drafting your NY will it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY estate lawyer. Feel free to call the NY probate lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NY probate 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, Richmond, Nassau, Orange and Dutchess.