Specificity is Key in Estate Planning

A Will and other estate planning documents provide you with the opportunity to make decisions that will affect your loved ones and beneficiaries after you have left this earth. You decide who gets what and you decide how much each person gets. You can even decide to leave something or everything to charity. A Will allows you the final say over the distribution of property and belongings you leave behind.

When making these decisions, it is important to be clear and specific as to how you want your items distributed. Ambiguous language in a Will can lead to disputes among beneficiaries and possible litigation in order to determine how the property was meant to be distributed.

In the New Jersey case of In re Estate of DeConca, for example, the co-executors were forced to file a verified complaint to seek the court’s opinion regarding which charitable organization was the intended beneficiary of a revocable trust. The language at issue stated:

Five Percent (5%) to ALZHEIMER’S ASSOCIATION, NEW JERSEY, 400 Morris Avenue, Suite 257, Denville, New Jersey 07834.

Confusion arose as to which chapter of the Alzheimer Association was to receive the distribution: The National Alzheimer’s Association headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, or Alzheimer’s New Jersey, Inc.  The court reviewed the language of the trust documents, the decedent’s history with the organizations, the organizations’ corporate documents, and the testimony of witnesses. The Judge relied on this information along with the decedent’s correspondence with and donations made to both organizations to determine her probable intent. Overall, the court determined that the gift was intended for Alzheimer’s New Jersey, Inc.

If the revocable trust had simply stated “Alzheimer’s New Jersey, Inc.” or “the Greater New Jersey Chapter of the National Alzheimer’s Association,” it would have been clear who was to receive the gift, and costly litigation could have been avoided.  Therefore, it is important to use clear and specific language as to whom a gift is intended.

If you or someone you know has questions or concerns regarding the specificity of the language in a Will or other estate planning document, please contact the attorneys at Ward, Shindle, & Hall.