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Surrogate’s Court considered a will construction case where the identify of a beneficiary nonprofit was unclear.  In re Estate of Geng, 50 Misc. 3d 475 (N.Y. Sur. Ct. 2015)


The purpose of a last will and testament is to allow the testator to leave instructions as to what is to happened to their property once the pass away. It’s important for a will to be will-written as clear.  Since when it is time to follow the instructions in the will the testator would have passed the way, they will not be available to clarify their intent. It is important that a will speak for itself.

However, if the language of the will is not clear, the court may have to step in and figure out the intent of the testator. For example if the language is not clear enough to determine beneficiaries or if the text of the will was not logical, the court would have to clarity. In Geng, the language in the will regarding a specific beneficiary was not clear. As a result, the executor asked the court of guidance through a will construction action.

The decedent executed a will on February 22, 1991. It was admitted to probate. It included a bequest of $100,000 to an organization called United Lutheran at 17 South Road, Hicksville, New York. They were to use the money for “their general purposes.” There is no gift over. The executor, who was initially unable to locate or trace the history of “United Lutheran,” petitioned for an order directing the substitution of a neighboring church as the beneficiary.

However, the executor had difficulty identifying and locating  United Lutheran.  It appears as if the beneficiary organization was misidentified in the decedent’s will.

In the case of the misnomer of a charitable beneficiary, the court may resort to extrinsic evidence to determine who the testator intended to benefit from their will. See Matter of Hackett, 37 Misc 2d 1029 (Sur Ct, NY County 1962) and Matter of Hodges, 26 Misc 2d 771 (Sur Ct, NY County 1960). The Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has identified “United Lutheran” as the Redeemer Lutheran Church, founded in 1958 and previously located at 17 New South Road, Hicksville, New York. However, Redeemer Lutheran Church ceased to exist in 2004.

Based on the history presented, the Surrogate’s Court concluded that the decedent’s intent is best effectuated by substituting the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as the beneficiary of the bequest to “United Lutheran.”

In the case where an organization ceased to exist years after the will was executed, there was little testator could have done to make it more clear other than naming an alternate or successor beneficiary. However, working with an experience estate lawyer is the best way to ensure that a will is not only clear, but that it is in compliance with the requirements of New York law.




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