In this case the court was asked to interpret the meaning of “my children” in a case where the decedent had stepchildren who he never adopted.
In this case, the decedent, Alfred Fellows, had executed a will in 1960, in which he bequeathed his estate to his wife, Florence Fellows, for her lifetime, with the remainder to his children. The will contained a provision stating that if Florence predeceased him, his estate was to be divided among his children. Florence predeceased Alfred, but she had three children from a prior marriage, who he had not adopted. The question before the court was whether these children were entitled to a share of Alfred’s estate.
The court found that the language of the will was clear and unambiguous, and that the three children were not entitled to a share of Alfred’s estate. The court noted that the will stated that Alfred’s estate was to be divided among “my children,” and that the term “children” should be interpreted in its legal sense, meaning only those who were Alfred’s biological or adopted children at the time of his death.
Generally, the word “children” refers to biological or adopted offspring. The term “children” may also include stepchildren or other legally recognized dependents, such as grandchildren who have been legally adopted by their grandparents. However, if not adopted, stepchildren are not considered “children.”
The court’s decision in Matter of Estate of Fellows highlights the importance of properly drafted wills, and the role of the court in interpreting the language of a will. It is essential for individuals to work with experienced estate planning attorneys who can draft wills that clearly and unambiguously express their wishes, and who can anticipate and address potential issues that may arise in the future.
Another important lesson from Matter of Estate of Fellows is that individuals should regularly review and update their estate plans to ensure that they reflect their current wishes and circumstances. In this case, if Alfred had updated his will after Florence’s death to explicitly include or exclude her children from her prior marriage, the court may have interpreted the will differently.
The case also underscores the importance of working with experienced New York estate planning attorneys who can anticipate potential issues that may arise and provide guidance on how to address them. An experienced attorney can help individuals evaluate their options and develop an estate plan that reflects their wishes and minimizes the potential for disputes among heirs.
Finally, Matter of Estate of Fellows highlights the potential complications that can arise in blended families. In this case, Florence’s children from her prior marriage were not included in Alfred’s will, and as a result, they were not entitled to a share of his estate. Blended families are becoming increasingly common, and it is important for individuals to work with experienced estate planning attorneys who can help them navigate the complex legal and emotional issues that can arise in these situations.
Reasons to review wills and other estate planning documents include:
- Changes in personal circumstances: Life is full of changes, such as marriage, divorce, the birth or adoption of a child, or the death of a loved one. These events may require changes to the will to ensure that it accurately reflects the individual’s wishes and intentions.
- Changes in financial circumstances: Significant changes in an individual’s financial situation, such as a windfall or a sudden loss of assets, may also require changes to the will to reflect their current financial standing.
- Changes in tax laws: Tax laws are subject to change, and changes in the law may impact the way an individual’s estate is taxed. It is important to review the will periodically to ensure that it is up-to-date with the latest tax laws.
- Changes in beneficiaries: Individuals may change their mind about who they want to inherit their assets or may become estranged from family members. In such cases, it is important to update the will to ensure that it accurately reflects the individual’s current wishes.
- Changes in estate planning goals: Over time, an individual’s estate planning goals may evolve, such as wanting to support a particular charitable cause. It is important to review the will periodically to ensure that it aligns with the individual’s current goals.