Dangers of Home-Made Wills Shown by New York Appellate Ruling

A New York Appellate Division four-judge panel has affirmed a ruling by New York County Surrogate Nora Anderson that Ronald D. Myers’ home-made will should be construed to leave his stock portfolio, apart from some IBM stock, to his mother rather than to his same-sex life partner.  Ephraim v. O’Connor, 2015 WL 4002277 (N.Y. App. Div., 1st Dep’t, July 2, 2015).  The ruling turned on the ambiguities of a document drafted without the assistance of a lawyer and the application of standard rules of contract construction that appear to contradict the likely intention of the gay testator.

In his will, Ronald Myers wrote that he left “all monies” to his mother, and “all stocks of I.B.M.” and “all personal property” to his life partner, whom he referred to as his “close friend.” He designated his mother and his life partner to be co-executors.

At the time he made his will, Myers’ sole stock ownership was I.B.M. shares, but by the time of his death his portfolio included other significant stock holdings.  He never revised his will to explicitly indicate how the rest of his stock should be distributed.  The dispute between the co-executors was whether the rest of the stock portfolio would go to Myers’ mother or his life partner (who is not named in the court’s opinion, the case being litigated by Martin Ephraim as “fiduciary of the deceased executor for the Estate of Ronald D. Myers”).

The surviving partner argued that corporate stock is “personal property” and thus should go to him.  Myers’ mother argued that by specifically designating I.B.M. stock to his partner, Myers signaled that he did not intend his other stock to go to the partner as well.

New York County Surrogate Anderson opted for the mother, who is now deceased as is Myers’ former life partner, so the dispute is actually between successors in interest on both sides.

Attorney Tom Shanahan, representing the fiduciary for the deceased life partner, argued that the stock should come within the term “personal property” rather than “monies” and go to his client, and that Surrogate Anderson had improperly favored the mother over the life partner in resolving this interpretive dispute, based on a traditional preference of resolving ambiguities on inheritance in favor of legal relatives.  Farrell Fritz, attorney for the mother’s estate, pressed the general rule of construction that the specific bequest of I.B.M. stock implies that Myers did not consider his other stock holding to come within the general category of “personal property” so it should go to the mother.

The Appellate Division was not sympathetic to Shanahan’s argument, writing: “The court properly interpreted the will as intending to bequeath to decedent’s mother the stock in companies other than IBM, in view of the limiting language of the bequest to his life partner and the broad language of the bequest to his mother.  If decedent viewed stock as ‘personal property,’ he would not have expressly noted the bequest of the IBM stock, since it would have been included in the more general bequest to his life partner.”  Since Myers did not own any stock other than I.B.M. stock at the time he wrote the will, one could argue that his failure to mention other stock specifically was not evidence of such an intention, but rather the oversight of somebody unaware of the intricacies of drafting wills.

Finding that the court’s reliance on this linguistic distinction was “proper,” the court also found that because the will itself referred to the partner as his “close friend,” the court’s “reference to decedent’s life partner as a ‘friend’ does not show that the court relied on a presumption in favor of relatives or that it marginalized or disregarded decedent’s long-term relationship with his life partner.”  Thus, the court rejected Shanahan’s argument that Surrogate Anderson’s reference to the surviving partner as a “friend” of Myers in her opinion was dismissive of the men’s relationship.  Of course, at the time the will was made many years ago, it might have been prudent for a gay testator to refer to his partner as a “close friend,” since a reference to somebody as a “lover” could open the door to “undue influence” arguments, which had traditionally been raised by surviving legal relatives in contesting gay people’s bequests to their surviving partners.  At the time this will was drafted, New York State did not provide any legal status for same-sex partners, so Myers’ partner could not have been referred to as a “spouse” or “husband.”

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