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Battle Over a $9 Million Will Rests on Just One Clause

A woman sitting outside of her homeJill Morris and Joan Anderson met decades ago in New York City and were romantically involved for close to 20 years. Ms. Morris, a psychologist, died in 2016 at age 84 after suffering for years from cancer. Twelve days later, Ms. Anderson, 76, died of a stroke.

For Emlie Anderson, the loss of her mother and her mother’s partner so close together was devastating. She had moved from Texas to New York to help her mother care for Ms. Morris, she said.

But their deaths weren’t the end of a tough time in her life. They turned out to be the beginning of an estate battle that has pitted Ms. Anderson against three nonprofit organizations that argue that Ms. Morris’s estate, valued at about $9 million, should go to them, not her.

The legal argument centers on the nature of language in Ms. Morris’s will, specifically a sentence in one subsection that treats her common-law wife the same as a dozen friends receiving smaller bequests. But the estate battle has also raised the issue of whether a heterosexual couple, together for the same 20 years, would face the same type of inheritance issue.

“At a minimum, the will’s ambiguous,” said Rick Scarola, the lawyer representing Ms. Anderson and her mother’s estate. “The law in New York says a will should be construed for people who are spouses. But the Surrogate Court said they’re not married, so that doesn’t apply.”

Mr. Scarola has argued that not only is the will ambiguous, it is poorly drafted.

What the two sides agree on is that Ms. Morris, who had a doctorate and worked as a psychoanalyst, was an intelligent and charitable woman. (She also seemed to have an eye for buying properties in the right place at the right time.) They also agree that she and Ms. Anderson, who worked in sales, had a long-term relationship.

But that’s where the agreements end. The nonprofit groups say that the will must be followed and that Ms. Morris did not marry on purpose — which she could have done after 2011. The other side argues that the pair were common-law spouses and should be accorded the same rights as a heterosexual couple.

The dispute rests on one article in Ms. Morris’s most recent will, which was executed shortly before she died. The article distributes various pieces of personal property as well as real estate and money. One friend gets a single glass marble sitting in an end table. Others get five-figure checks. An artist gets three of her own paintings.

The same article of the will also gives Ms. Anderson far more valuable things: $100,000; a townhouse in the West Village worth more than $4 million; a beach house in Water Mill, N.Y., that is on the market for about $750,000; the contents of Ms. Morris’s safe deposit box at a bank; a carousel horse; and several paintings.

But the distribution of these bequests comes after a clause that says Ms. Morris makes these gifts to each individual “provided that he or she survives me by 30 days.”

Other articles make specific gifts to friends without this 30-day clause. And as in any will, there is a residual clause, which sweeps up whatever is left and, in this case, leaves it to three charities.

The three charities — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children Federation — with the State of New York joining them, contend that since the elder Ms. Anderson did not live 30 days after Ms. Morris died, she did not fulfill the requirement of the bequest and so what was meant for her goes to the charities.

Ms. Anderson’s daughter and her lawyers contend that this is a misreading of the will’s intent. The lawyers note that by law you cannot disinherit a spouse. Depending on the state, a spouse is entitled to some percentage of the estate, at a minimum. That Ms. Morris and Ms. Anderson were together for so long would make them like spouses, if they were a heterosexual couple. Therefore, they argue, Joan Anderson should not be cut out of the will because she died just 12 days after Ms. Morris, and her daughter should inherit the money.

The charities’ lawyers said Ms. Morris had chosen not to marry and had also been specific with the drafting of the will and the naming of three charities she supported during her lifetime.

Judge Nora Anderson of the Surrogate Court of New York ruled in March in favor of the charities. She wrote that there was no question that the two women were together romantically for a long time but said that they had chosen not to marry and that the court was guided by how the will had been written.

Sharon Klein, a trusts and estates lawyer who is the president of family wealth in the eastern United States for Wilmington Trust, said that some wording in the will was ambiguous but that she understood the court’s ruling.

“It’s just a poorly drafted will, with the 30-day survivorship clause in some places but not others,” Ms. Klein said. “You can make arguments on both sides. I’m sure the decedent wanted to benefit her life partner. The question is, did she want to benefit her life partner’s daughter? That she didn’t nominate Joan’s daughter as a beneficiary is pretty telling.”

Emlie Anderson has appealed the ruling, with briefs delivered this month. The appeal is based in part on how a surviving spouse would have been treated in a will as well as on how the will was revised.

Wills are meant to be interpreted in their entirety, not clause by clause, Ms. Anderson’s lawyers argue.

A lawyer had created the original version. But Ms. Morris revised the will a few months before her death with the help of a friend, Charlie Martin. He had been the common-law husband of Ms. Anderson’s other daughter, Kimberly, who died several years earlier. Mr. Martin has no legal training; before getting into webcasting, he was an engineer and a promoter for rock bands.

Mr. Martin said in an interview that the couple had regularly gone to him for help on things like shoveling snow or winterizing the beach house. And they asked him to look at Ms. Morris’s will because he had the software to open the file. He said he had sat with Ms. Morris as she revised the amounts she wanted to leave her friends.

“I made the changes in the file and went along my merry way,” he said. “Then the will was contested, and all of these people came out of the woodwork that we never saw. I don’t think Joan had seen most of these people in many years, if not decades.”

Mr. Scarola, the lawyer for the Anderson estate, said: “One of the reasons the will is a mess is Charlie Martin, who isn’t a lawyer but is quite computer savvy, sat with Jill some months before she passed away and took a version of her will to hear what she wanted to change.”

The lawyers for the charities cited previous versions of the will to buttress their claims to the estate.

There’s another twist. The elder Ms. Anderson was named the executor of the will. When she died, that responsibility passed to Sue Renee Bernstein, a longtime friend who represents artists.

But Ms. Anderson and Mr. Martin have questioned Ms. Bernstein’s motives. Under New York State law, an executor is entitled to a percentage of the estate as payment for managing the transfer of the estate. If nothing is sold and the assets just pass to an heir, as would have been the case with the two homes, their value does not count toward calculating the fee. But if they’re sold, their value goes toward the executor’s fee.

Given the estimate of the estate’s value by the lawyers for Ms. Anderson, the executor’s commission if they were sold would be about $200,000.

Ms. Bernstein declined to address her compensation as executor and defended her connection to Ms. Morris.

“I was a friend of the deceased, Jill Morris, for approximately 30 years,” she wrote in an email. “She entrusted me to execute her will. I take that responsibility seriously.”

The lawyers for the charities pointed to their appellate briefs, agreeing with the judge’s ruling.

The younger Ms. Anderson said the case was about more than the will. It was about validating the longstanding relationship between her mother and Ms. Morris.

“I’m telling the story the way it was,” she said. “I feel like something should count for the relationship that they had. If they weren’t gay, I don’t think this would be happening.”

The appeal will be heard this winter.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/your-money/will-estate-planning-fight.html
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