New York case example of need to update estate plan after divorce

Updating and properly storing a will after major life events can help reduce heartache and confusion.

Estate plans are intended to ease the passage of property and assets to future generations. Although these plans generally are helpful, the failure to update a plan can cause frustration to potential beneficiaries. This is particularly true after the birth or death of a family member as well as after marriages or the completion of a divorce.

A case out of New York serves as an example of the importance of updating an estate plan after a major life event and properly storing it. It involves a contested will, divorce, a piece of property that was within a family for multiple generations and a missing updated estate plan.

More on the case

The case, the Matter of the Estate of Robyn R. Lewis, was most recently decided at the New York Fourth Department Appellate Division, New York’s intermediate appellate court. The case is fueling debate throughout the legal community and was covered in an article published in both The Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch, a leading provider of business and financial news. According to the report, former in-laws are attempting to claim ownership of a home that was in Lewis’ family for generations. The father-in-law argues that Lewis’ will from 1996 is valid. New York state law automatically removes the son as a beneficiary when the divorce was finalized, but the will listed his father as a secondary beneficiary. As a result, the decedent’s father-in-law argues that he is the legal beneficiary of the property.

Lewis’ family counters that the woman intended to remove her father-in-law as a beneficiary after she divorced her husband. The family contends that the 1996 will cited by the father-in-law stating he is a beneficiary to the property is trumped by a more recent will. Unfortunately, the woman’s family is unable to find a copy of the more recent will. New York’s Fourth Department Appellate Division ruled in favor of the father-in-law, but the New York Court of Appeals has agreed to review the case in March, 2015.

Lessons for New Yorkers

This case is a prime example of the need to properly update an estate plan after a divorce. In this example, a piece of property that has become a family heirloom is in jeopardy. The issue would not exist if the will was updated and appropriately stored after the divorce was finalized.

Updating a will is just one important step to take after a divorce. Additional concerns include:

  • Health-care proxies
  • Power of attorney documents
  • Beneficiary designations on bank and retirement accounts

Those who are updating or putting together an estate plan are wise to seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. This legal professional can tailor the documents to better ensure they reflect your wishes.

Keywords: estate planning