Walloped by a Will? Surprises in Probate Rarely Welcome
American cinema is full of dramatic moments in which last wills and testaments are read aloud to stunned family members, shocked by divulged secrets and unexpected disinheritances. While such scenes make for exciting plot points, the reality in New York, as in most states, is that such dramatic readings never occur. Instead wills are processed through a legal procedure called probate, which involves a determination of the enforceability of wills.
Ultimately, probate is designed to fulfill two aims. On the one hand, probate administration attempts to meet the desires of the deceased as expressed in the will. On the other hand, probate administration must ensure that the will’s mandates do not violate public policy or legal regulations. When these two mandates clash, disputes arise.
One of the most problematic issues that arise in probate is the exclusion of family members from the distribution of estate assets. While it may not be as dramatic as the will-reading moments in the movies, the moment when family members discover they are receiving nothing or less than they expected can be devastating. In New York, barring specific binding agreements to the contrary, spouses cannot be left with nothing, while children may be completely disinherited.
Ivy League inheritance
In one of the most shocking recent probate cases, famed author Gore Vidal left almost his entire fortune to Harvard University. This came as a major surprise to family members and longtime employees who had been chagrined at the writer’s decline and dementia in the years leading up to his death. His nephew maintains that the author, who himself was not an alumnus of Harvard, changed his will when he did not possess the mental faculties to make it binding.
Determining whether a will is binding
As is this case in the Vidal will, a key inquiry in many probate proceedings is the enforceability of a will based upon a number of issues. Specifically, probate courts look to:
- The mental state and capacity of the deceased when the will was made and the presence of any fraud or improper influence by others
- The existence of provisions that violate public policy or legal precedent
- Adherence to formalities of execution required by law
Facing the probate process can be a daunting prospect. Consult with a qualified New York estate attorney at Law Offices of Peter G. Gray to avoid unwanted surprises.