The battle for greater than $ 9 million is predicated on only one clause
Jill Morris and Joan Anderson met decades ago in New York City and have been romantically involved for nearly 20 years. Ms. Morris, a psychologist, died in 2016 at the age of 84 after suffering from cancer for years. Twelve days later, Ms. Anderson, 76, died of a stroke.
For Emlie Anderson, the loss of her mother and her mother’s close partner was devastating. She moved to New York from Texas to help her mother take care of Ms. Morris, she said.
But her death was not the end of a difficult time in her life. It turns out that this was the beginning of an estate battle that saw Ms. Anderson taking on three nonprofits arguing that Ms. Morris’ estate, worth about $ 9 million, should go to her, not her.
The legal argument centers on the nature of the language in Ms. Morris’ will, specifically a sentence in a subsection that treats her wife under common law in the same way as a dozen friends who receive minor estates. But the estate struggle has also raised the question of whether a heterosexual couple would face the same type of inheritance problem together for the same 20 years.
“At least the will isn’t clear,” said Rick Scarola, the attorney who represents Ms. Anderson and her mother’s estate. “New York law says that a will should be construed for spouses. But the alternate court said they weren’t married, so that doesn’t apply. “
Mr Scarola has argued that the will is not only ambiguous, it is poorly worded.
Both sides agree that Ms. Morris, a PhD who worked as a psychoanalyst, was an intelligent and charitable woman. (She also seemed to have an eye for buying property in the right place at the right time.) They also agree that she and Ms. Anderson, who worked in sales, had a long-term relationship.
But that’s where the agreements end. The nonprofits say the will must be obeyed and that Ms. Morris did not intentionally marry – which she could have done after 2011. The other side argues that the couple were spouses under common law and should be given the same rights as a heterosexual couple.
The dispute is based on an article in Ms. Morris’ latest will that was executed shortly before her death. The article distributes various personal items as well as real estate and money. A friend gets a single glass marble to sit in a side table. Others get five-digit checks. An artist receives three of her own pictures.
The same article of the will also gives Ms. Anderson more valuable items: $ 100,000; a townhouse in the West Village valued at more than $ 4 million; a beach house in Water Mill, NY, which sells for approximately $ 750,000; the contents of Ms. Morris’s safe at a bank; a carousel horse; and several paintings.
The distribution of these estates, however, is based on a clause stating that Ms. Morris will give these gifts to each individual “provided he or she survives me by 30 days”.
Other items make certain gifts to friends without this 30-day clause. And as in any will, there is a residual clause that cleans up whatever is left, in this case leaving it to three charities.
The three charities – the Defense Council for Natural Resources, Doctors Without Borders, and Save the Children Federation – that New York State is joining claim that the elderly Ms. Anderson did not live 30 days after Ms. Morris passed away to meet the requirements of the Legacy and what was meant for them goes to the charities.
Ms. Anderson’s daughter and her attorneys claim this is a misinterpretation of the will’s intent. The lawyers point out that you cannot legally disinherit a spouse. Depending on the state, a spouse is entitled to at least a certain percentage of the estate. That Ms. Morris and Ms. Anderson were together for so long would make them marriage partners if they were a straight couple. They therefore argue Joan Anderson should not be excluded from the will as she died only 12 days after Ms. Morris and her daughter should inherit the money.
Charities lawyers said Ms. Morris had decided not to marry and was also specific in drawing up the will and naming three charities she supported during her lifetime.
Surrogate Court judge Nora Anderson in New York ruled in March in favor of the charities. She wrote that there was no question that the two women had been romantically together for a long time, but said that they had decided not to get married and that the way the will was written was running the court.
Sharon Klein, a trust and estates attorney who serves as president of family property for the Wilmington Trust in the eastern United States, said some wordings in the will were ambiguous but she understood the court’s decision.
“It’s just a poorly worded will, with the 30-day survival clause in some places but not in others,” Ms. Klein said. “You can argue on both sides. I am sure the deceased wanted to benefit her life partner. The question is, did she want to benefit her partner’s daughter? The fact that she did not nominate Joan’s daughter as a beneficiary is pretty telling. “
Emlie Anderson appealed the ruling and delivered briefs this month. The appeal is based in part on how a surviving spouse would have been treated in a will and how the will was revised.
Wills should be interpreted in their entirety, not clause by clause, argue Ms. Anderson’s lawyers.
A lawyer had created the original version. But Ms. Morris revised the will a few months before her death with the help of a friend, Charlie Martin. He had been the husband of Ms. Anderson’s other daughter, Kimberly, who had died several years earlier. Mr. Martin has no legal training; Before joining webcasting, he was an engineer and promoter for rock bands.
Mr Martin said in an interview that the couple went to see him regularly for help with things like shoveling snow or wintering the beach house. And they asked him to look at Ms. Morris’s will because he had the software to open the file. He said he was sitting with Ms. Morris when she revised the amounts she was about to leave her friends.
“I made the changes to the file and went my merry way,” he said. “Then the will was challenged, and all these people came out of the woodwork we never saw. I don’t think Joan has seen most of these people in many years, if not decades. “
Mr. Scarola, attorney for the Anderson estate, said, “One of the reasons the will is a mess is Charlie Martin, who is not a lawyer but is quite computer savvy. He sat with Jill a few months before her death and took a version of her will to hear what she wanted to change. “
The charities’ lawyers cited earlier versions of the will to back up their claims on the property.
There is another twist. The elderly Ms. Anderson was appointed executor. When she died, that responsibility passed to Sue Renee Bernstein, a longtime friend who represents artists.
But Ms. Anderson and Mr. Martin have questioned Ms. Bernstein’s motives. Under New York State law, an executor is entitled to a percentage of the estate as payment for administering the estate transfer. If nothing is sold and the property only passes to an heir, as would have been the case with the two houses, their value does not count towards the calculation of the fee. However, if they are sold, their value goes into the executor’s fee.
Given the lawyers’ estimate of the estate’s value for Ms. Anderson, the executor’s commission on a sale would be approximately $ 200,000.
Ms. Bernstein declined to address her executor’s compensation and defended her connection with Ms. Morris.
“I was a friend of the late Jill Morris for about 30 years,” she wrote in an email. “She asked me to carry out her will. I take this responsibility seriously. “
The charities’ lawyers referred to their appeal papers and agreed with the judge’s decision.
The younger Ms. Anderson said the case was about more than the will. It was about confirming the longstanding relationship between her mother and Mrs. Morris.
“I’m telling the story as it was,” she said. “I think something should count for the relationship they had. If they weren’t gay, it probably wouldn’t happen. “
The roll call will be heard this winter.