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How courts could interpret New York wills

A previous post on this blog discussed how residents of Rochester, New York, can contest a will if they feel they have legal grounds to do so. Indeed, estate litigation, including will contests, can be very important when a person who has a right to an inheritance is being bullied or taken advantage of by someone else involved in the process.

However, will contests or other questions about the validity of a will are not the only types of probate disputes that can lead to litigation. In many cases, family members and all other interested parties agree that a valid will exists, but they disagree about exactly what certain provisions in the will mean.

Unfortunately, even when someone has used their best efforts, a will might end up not being written clearly enough to give good directions as to how to handle a particular piece of property. In such cases, when beneficiaries and heirs cannot all agree, the New York courts will step in.

Interestingly, questions about the interpretation of a will are, procedurally speaking, handled in the same manner as will contests. Specifically, someone who has a question about interpretation has to petition the probate court handling the will and, first, show that the person actually has an interest in the question, meaning the answer will affect the person one way or the other. All interested parties, which include everyone who stands to benefit from the will and possibly others as well, must be given notice of the question so they have the opportunity to advocate for their own interests.

Generally speaking, a court is going to try to interpret the will so as to carry out what the person who wrote the will intended. Although the court may use a number of techniques and legal rules to do this, the default is that the will means what it says. In other words, a court will not try to resolve a lack of clarity in the will if, after looking at it closely, determines the language is clear enough to act upon.

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