We are a “do-it-yourself” society. If something needs to be done, then we will find a way to do it. However, there are certain tasks that we should never tackle without expert professional help (in my case, plumbing goes to the top of the list). Drafting a Will is one of those tasks because ambiguities and omissions in drafting can be very costly to those you leave behind.
Here are a few reasons why. Each state has laws that govern the language, including terms of art (language with special legal meaning), the proper means of execution, and a set of distribution rules that must be clearly understood and clearly followed. In addition, there are tax implications with respect to bequests. These must be carefully analyzed with your attorney so as to minimize the impact on beneficiaries. The reason that we write a Will in the first place is to protect the people we love. By having an attorney draft your Will, you also ensure that the people in your life receive the care and financial support that they will need to carry on. This is especially true for small children, persons with disabilities, persons with special needs, and surviving spouses or domestic partners. Finally, things change every year in our lives and it is a very good practice to review the contents of your Will on a yearly basis. You likely won’t change your Will yearly, but you will better understand its meaning with respect to your present circumstances after this review.
Consider the case of Anita Hamilton [In the Matter of the Estate of Hamilton, 190 A.D.2d 927 (1993)]. She married Milton Hamilton in a second marriage. Milton had two daughters from a prior marriage, Mary H. McLaughlin and Gwendolyn H. Stevens, and Anita had a son by a prior marriage, John H. Ricketson.
On February 26, 1989 Milton passed away. Over the years, Milton had drafted several Wills, one in 1966, one in 1975 revoking the 1966 Will, and one in 1982 revoking the 1975 Will. He had drafted his last Will and testament on April 5, 1982 and directing that his residuary estate should be divided into two funds. Fund A was a marital deduction trust. Fund B constituted Milton’s bequests to his daughters. With respect to Fund A, Milton directed that the remaining principal be “paid, transferred or distributed … in such manner … as [Anita Hamilton] may by her last Will and Testament direct and appoint” (Hamilton, at 928).
Milton’s Will was very specific concerning this power of appointment. It was “exercisable only by specific reference to said power in [Hamilton’s] last Will and Testament”. Failure to effectively exercise the power of appointment in this specific way meant that the assets remaining in Fund A passed to McLaughlin and Stevens.
Anita Hamilton passed away 15 days after her husband died. Her last will and testament dated December 22, 1967, fifteen years before her husband had executed his last Will. In Anita’s Will were the following words: “By this paragraph of my Last Will and Testament, I do specifically exercise the power of appointment given to me by paragraph “Sixth” of the Last Will and Testament of my husband … dated the 26th day of August, 1966, in favor of my son, JOHN HENRY RICKETSON … or to his issue him surviving, to the extent of seven-eighths (7/8ths) of the fund over which I have the power of appointment, and I give, devise and bequeath to SUE M. RICKETSON, wife of my son, one-eighth (1/8th) of the fund over which I have the power of appointment under the said Last Will and Testament of my husband … By these provisions, I do specifically exercise the power of appointment given to me by the Will of my said husband” (Id. at 928). Both Milton’s and Anita’s Wills were admitted to probate.
The Surrogate Court of Albany County looked at the specific language in Milton’s 1982 Will and decreed that Anita had not made proper reference to that specific power of appointment in her Will. Instead, she had referenced Milton’s 1966 Will that had been revoked by two subsequent Wills. Consequently, the court decreed that the principal of Fund A be awarded to Milton’s daughter’s. Anita’s son John Ricketson appealed.
The Appellate Court, Third Department affirmed the Surrogate Court’s decision. The Court made explicit reference to the language of EPTL 10-6.1: “[i]f the donor has expressly directed that no instrument shall be effective to exercise the power unless it contains a specific reference to the power, an instrument not containing such reference does not validly exercise the power.” Because Anita’s Will referenced a Will that had been revoked, her power of appointment failed. The result was that her stepdaughters received what she had intended for her son and his family.
A carefully review of Anita’s Will by an attorney may have revealed the omission. A do-it-yourself Will in such a case would also be grossly ineffective to preserve the bequest. Moreover, the Hamilton case illustrates the dependencies of one Will document on another Will document. Every family is different and each person in it represents a unique instance. A Will drafted by another family member could impact or limit your ability to pass on a bequest to a designated beneficiary. That is why it is always best to consult and work with an attorney who is versed in these matters.
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