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Surrogate’s Court was asked to construe the terms of a will. In re Will of Paulin 61 Misc. 3d 1214 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2018)


Will construction is a legal process aimed at interpreting and understanding the intentions of a testator, the person who made the will, when the document’s language is unclear or subject to multiple interpretations. This process becomes necessary when beneficiaries or interested parties raise concerns or disputes regarding the meaning of specific provisions in the will. The court engages in will construction to ensure that the testator’s wishes are accurately carried out, taking into account legal principles and rules of interpretation. This involves analyzing the language used in the will, considering the overall context, and applying relevant legal standards. Will construction proceedings seek to resolve ambiguities, clarify terms, and ultimately ascertain the true intent of the testator, providing clarity for the proper distribution of assets among heirs and beneficiaries.

The case of In re Will of Paulin, 61 Misc. 3d 1214 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2018) involved Dorothy Jean Paulin’s contested will, dated December 27, 2006. The objections raised by the decedent’s grandson, Cerious McCray, revolve around allegations of undue influence and a plea for the construction of a crucial clause in the will.

Background Facts
In the context of the probate of Dorothy Jean Paulin’s last will dated December 27, 2006, the objectant raises a construction issue, urging the court to grant summary judgment. The objectant requests the court to construe the Fourth Article of the will, asserting that the Residuary Estate is an outright bequest to all of Dorothy Jean Paulin’s children, both living and predeceased, without any survival language. The objectant relies on SCPA ยง 1420(1), contending that a person interested in will construction may petition the court where the will was probated.

The will construction issue in this case pertained to the interpretation of the term “per stirpes” within the Fourth Article of the decedent’s will, specifically whether it constituted an outright bequest in fee simple absolute to all of her children or if it had further implications related to the rights of predeceased children and their descendants.

The court grants the petitioner’s motion to dismiss the objections entirely, including the reference to the construction of the will. The court denies the request for costs and disbursements. Subsequently, the genuineness of the will was acknowledged, and it is admitted to probate. Letters Testamentary are to be issued to Martha Walker (also known as Martha Carrington), the named executor in the will.

The discussion on the construction issue in the probate proceeding of Dorothy Jean Paulin’s will centers on the interpretation of Article Fourth, particularly the phrase “per stirpes” within the Residuary Estate clause. The objectant argues that this addition implies a substantive gift to the heirs of predeceased children, providing significance only if the named legatees, Rodney and Patricia, fail to survive the testatrix.

However, the court emphasizes the overarching principle that will construction aims to ascertain the testator’s intent, prioritizing a sympathetic reading of the will as a whole. In this case, the court deems the language of the will clear and unambiguous, rejecting the objectant’s proposed construction. The court underscores that the words “per stirpes” gain significance only if Rodney and Patricia do not survive the testatrix, emphasizing the importance of survival in this context.

Conclusively, the court grants the petitioner’s motion to dismiss the objections, inclusive of any reference to the construction of the will. The denial of costs and disbursements is affirmed. The genuineness of the will is acknowledged, and it is admitted to probate, with Letters Testamentary to be issued to Martha Walker upon qualification. The court’s decision rests on the clarity and unambiguity of the will’s language, reinforcing the intent of the testator.

In unraveling the legal tapestry of Dorothy Jean Paulin’s contested will, the court meticulously addressed the objections raised by Cerious McCray. The dismissal of the objections and the affirmation of the will’s probate underscore the importance of concrete evidence in claims of undue influence. Additionally, the court’s strict adherence to the clear language of the will in the construction argument reinforces the principle of giving effect to the testator’s intent. This case serves as a reminder of the complexities inherent in probate proceedings, where legal intricacies and familial dynamics intertwine in the pursuit of justice.

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