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Interesting Will Jurisdiction Issue


A son from California filed for an order dismissing the pending proceeding to probate his mother’s New York Will that raises an interesting question of jurisdiction. The son argues the jurisdiction of the court to prove the validity of the Will of a non-residence which requests New York to prove valid and invokes New York law on the ground that her French legal residency has assumed jurisdiction over her estate. The motion is opposed by the Petitioners in the proceeding, the co-executors named in the Will, who are presently serving as preliminary executors.

The mother who made the Will was born a French citizen in 1899, and she became a naturalized United States citizen. She was a New York resident for about thirty years. For approximately seven years she was employed in the law offices in New York City. During this period she worked as secretary to one of that firm’s senior partners. A lawyer-client relationship with that firm also commenced during that time. The French Ordinary Residence Card issued indicates that the mother who made the Will stated that she returned to France on October 24, 1971.

A New York Probate Lawyer said the Will which is the subject of the jurisdictional attack was drafted by the firm in New York she worked for. It was allegedly executed by the deceased in the firm’s Paris office in 1972, and there is no challenge on the matter. Both the petitioners and the son refer to the 1972 document as the New York Will. Both sides seemingly agree that this Will, whether admitted to be proven valid in New York or established in accordance with French law, governs at most the property of the deceased mother which was physically located in New York when she died, and that it does not affect property actually located in France, which passes under the French Will.

The French Will states that the assets of the deceased mother located in New York when she died in 1978 and which she was apparently content to have remained in New York despite the fact that she moved to France in 1971 consisted of bank accounts and a brokerage account. At the time of her death the value of this New York property exceeded $320,000. Bronx Probate Lawyers said that the property located in France when she died consisted of an interest in real property to wit her apartment, and the personal property in the apartment. The value of this French property is disputed; the petitioners contend that its value is approximately $75,000 while the son’s position on oral argument was that it might be worth as much as $150,000.

On December 15, 1977 the deceased mother executed the document which the parties call the French Will. It is undisputed that the French Will has been established in France in conformity with French practice. On oral argument counsel for the son stated that the New York Will was in the process of being established in France and it appears from documents subsequently filed with the court that this has occurred although, for the reasons not essential to the resolution of the issue at hand.

In outline form, the provisions of these two Wills are as follows: The first paragraph of the 1972 New York Will contains the crucial language for purposes of this motion. It recites the deceased mother’s residence as being in Paris, France and then declares that she elect that the Will shall be admitted to original administrators in the State of New York and shall be construed and regulated by the laws of the State of New York, and that the validity and effect thereof shall be determined by such laws.”

A Brooklyn Probate Lawyer said the settlement provisions are simple. The deceased gives a life interest in her apartment in in Paris to her friend if then living, or, if the friend predeceased her, which occurred, the apartment passes to the deceased mother’s adopted son, the one who filed the motion herein. Under Article Third all personal and household effects etc. other than those disposed of in connection with the apartment in are given to the said friend, or if she is not then living, to the deceased mother’s friend, who is concededly a French resident.

Sources revealed, the entire remaining property is given in trust for the benefit of the aforesaid friend for life and upon her death, or upon the deceased mother’s death, if said friend should predecease her as she did, the remaining is disposed of as follows: $5,000 to her “adopted son”; $5,000 to a godchild in England; $10,000 to a friend, a French resident; and the balance to be divided between the aforesaid French resident friend and a French mutual aid society. The nominated executors and trustees are her friend and the Bank of New York. Her executor and trustee friend is a member of the Law firm she worked for. As a substitute or successor executor for him, the deceased mother named her friend, from Oyster Bay, New York.’

The final article of the New York Will contains a warning providing for the lapse of any provision made in the Will for any person named as a beneficiary who shall Will Contest or file objections to the admission to prove the validity of the Will.

Just as the New York Will be attune with the approach to the delegation of the property and the Estate Administration, the 1977 French Will presumably reflects the practice in that country. The deceased mother simply appoints her French friend as the person who is given the excess portion of inheritance on condition that she performs the special legacy. The special legacy is endowment of the apartment in Paris and its contents to the deceased mother’s adoptive son. On its face the provision is fitting with the terms of the New York Will which were to become operative in case the deceased mother’s friend predeceased her as she did.

There are two other relevant provisions in this instrument. One is the specification that legacy is not made as an excess portion of inheritance and outside a share. As a consequence of the foregoing, the adoptive son will only be able to claim it as taking less than a share. The other is revoking any other previous provisions, with the exception of those which are contained in her American Will, bearing the date of 1972, which has been deposited in New York City unless such provisions would be contrary to the Will.

Apparently the motion is directed to the court’s jurisdiction. It is cast in terms of the efficiency of administration and the reduction of expense which the son alleges would result from deferring to France and declining jurisdiction. The essential issue here, however, is much more related to the son’s acknowledged forced right to inheritance claim. The affidavit of the son’s California counsel in support of the motion affirms that he was informed that under French law the son is entitled, as the deceased mother’s child, to one-half of her property. While the son’s acknowledges the possibility that the French law might be found applicable to his claim to a share of the assets located in the U.S. State is no ground for the denial of jurisdiction in New York, quoting the Court of Appeals opinion in Matter of Steel, it seems clear that the desire to assert the forced right to inheritance claim in the French courts provides the motivation for the instant motion. Similarly, some of the force of the executors’ opposition is presumably fueled by the disparity of position.

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