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Court decides whether language in a will is mandatory or precatory – Moore’s Will, In re, 227 N.Y.S.2d 702 (N.Y. Surr. Ct., 1962)


In this case the Surrogate’s Court considered whether certain language in a will is a mandatory condition of a beneficiary’s receiving a bequest or is merely precatory language.

In her will, decedent Moore left her residuary estate to a beneficiary who was a resident of Poland. The language of the bequest included that the residuary estate was to be the beneficiary’s “to be hers absolutely and forever.” Additional language stated that the beneficiary, who was a minor at the time of Moore’s death, was to come to New York City to receive the payment. The question for the court was whether the executor was required to make the payment to the beneficiary in New York City, or if the executor could send the payment to the beneficiary in Poland.

The court concluded that the provision stating that the executor is to make the payment in New York City was not a mandatory, but precatory language. Language in a will that surrounds a bequest can be mandatory or precatory. If the language is mandatory, an imperative duty is imposed, meaning that it is a condition of receiving the bequest and the court can enforce the provision. If the language is precatory, then no imperative duty is imposed. Performance is up to the discretion of the beneficiary. In other words, the obligation is moral not legal. The court cannot order the beneficiary to perform as a condition for receiving the bequest. Typically, precatory language includes “wish,” “want,” “recommend,” or “desire.”

Accordingly, the court ordered that if the beneficiary requests it in writing, the executor may make payment by appropriate transfer of the funds to the beneficiary in the manner set forth by the Surrogate’s Court as, the time that this case was before the Surrogate’s Court, there were special rules that had to be followed for distributions to residents of Poland.

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