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Court Rules on Terrorem Clause


John A. Stiehler died on July 29, 1984. At the time of his death he had a wife and three adult children from prior marriage. The executor of his estate filed his last will and testament, dated May 16, 1973, and an addition to his will dated September 8, 1982 for probate. He stated in his will that since his wife likes his home in Florida so much, she is given right and privilege to it as long as she lives or until she gets married again. The codicils are also to her benefit. A New York Probate Lawyer obtained information the will stated that since he has been generous to his wife, a contest of the will or any of its supplements will result to her forfeiting her right to the benefits of the will.

The wife filed objections to probate on January 2, 1985. She objected to both will and codicil. After which, she amended her petition to ask for an addition to the will dated July 24, 1984 be added to probate. This codicil did not include the terrorem clause and the limitation with regard to the remarriage. She ultimately withdrew her will contest and contested to the probate of the May 26, 1973 will and the September 8, 1982 codicil but reserved the right to petition for probate of the instrument dated July 24, 1984. In a later document, she also withdrew the petition for probate for the July 24, 1984 codicil. In this case, the wife is asking for an advance to the bequest that is due to her. In an instant proceeding, she asks for the property in Florida.

The executor of the estate contested that the wife had violated the no-contest clause of the codicil and therefore, is not entitled to any of the bequests. The court determined that the first issue to address is if the wife violated the terrorem clause of the will. For this, according to Nassau County Probate Lawyers, they need to establish the intention of the testator. It appears that he had wanted his wife and children to be provided for. The court said that contest can mean different things depending on the case. There are cases wherein the simple filing of an objection even if it was not tried was considered a contest. There are also cases where in order to be deemed a contest the protest should have pushed through in litigation.

The court determines the reasonable interpretation is that the testator would not want an objection filed and subsequently withdrawn to be the cause of forfeiture of the rights of his beneficiary. Brooklyn Probate Lawyers mentioned this is consistent with the general rule that terrorem clauses must be precise in wanting to disinherit. The court also cited that the terms in the codicil presented by the wife showed probable cause. For this case, thought it was not determined if that instrument was valid. Their decision is therefore, to grant the property to the spouse with the remarriage limitation. This is still subject to a renewed application.

The intention of the testator is a large part of any determination of a last will and testament. This is the reason why the court as a general rule requires that a terrorem clause or a no-contest clause be specific on what it aims to do. In wills like this where it shows that in fact the decedent wants his beneficiaries to get their due.

If you find yourself in a position like this where you are torn from filing an objection or not knowing if the document or instrument that you have is valid, speak to Stephen Bilkis & Associates. They will go through the words of the will with you. They will also go through the law to give you the best route to take. If you find yourself in this situation, walk in any of our offices in New York or contact us at 1-800 NY – NY- LAW for a consultation. You can find us online as well and make an appointment from there.

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