By Jason Stern
Having drafted, witnessed and supervised more than a thousand wills as a NY estate lawyer I have come to appreciate the No-Contest Clause. The No-Contest Clause also known as In Terrorem Clause, Latin for in terror, can be a useful tool in preventing costly estate litigation down the road. And this is how it works. A distributee also known as a relative or heir, is someone entitled to inherit from your estate if you had no will. For instance, individuals such as a spouse or children have legal standing to contest any last will & testament which gives them a smaller portion of your estate than they would otherwise inherit absent a will.
For various reasons people come into and out of our lives at different times. Unfortunately, this can result in someone’s decision to disinherit their distributee. While you cannot completely disinherit your spouse under the NY estate law, as spouses are automatically entitled to the minimum one-third (1/3) spousal right of election pursuant to NY estate law when exercised, you can disinherit everyone else. But rather than disinheriting the distributee, someone entitled to inherit a portion of your estate had you not had a NY will, your NY estate lawyer will sometimes insert a No-Contest Clause in your last will & testament. However, the No-Contest Clause only works when it is accompanied by a specific bequest to that particular heir you originally intended to disinherit. So rather than disinheriting the individual who would ordinarily have standing to contest your last will & testament resulting in costly, protracted NY estate litigation, you instead leave them a nominal distribution. Thus if the individual elects to go ahead and contest the will anyway, they lose their bequest if the NY will contest ultimately fails, which most do.
For example, as a NY will contest lawyer we see the recurring scenario where spouses divorce and remarry, becoming estranged from their biological children. While the children may no longer have contact with their parent they remain distributees of their parent’s estate and entitled to contest any instrument that disinherits them. Thus, parents in these circumstances might incorporate the No-Contest Clause into their will, leaving their children only a modest bequest. The No-Contest Clause thereby prevents or at least discourages any future NY will contest lawyer from appearing in the case.
Estate of Aaron Spelling
Aaron Spelling was one of the most successful producers in Hollywood when he passed away in 2006. He created some of the twentieth century’s most successful programing including I Love Lucy, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Dynasty as well as the show which made his daughter a star, Beverly Hills 90210. Throughout his lifetime, Spelling amassed a six-hundred million ($600,000,000.00) dollar fortune. Even after his 2006 death, the Aaron Spelling Estate has shown no signs of slowing down, still receiving tens of millions of dollars a year in royalties. Aaron’s beloved daughter Tori Spelling grew up in the lap of luxury, wanting for nothing. Tori Spelling’s lavish lifestyle was only surpassed by the fame and notoriety that accompanied her starring role on Beverly Hills 90210.
Unfortunately for Tori she eventually would have a falling out with her mother Candy Spelling causing the two to become estranged. Two months before 83-year-old Aaron Spelling expired he changed his will, leaving daughter Tori Spelling only a modest eight hundred thousand ($800,000.00) dollar bequest. This amount is substantially smaller than her previous eight figure distribution within her father’s prior instruments. With the bulk of his estate directed to his wife Candy, Tori Spelling’s humble bequest was accompanied by a No-Contest Clause. Since Aaron Spelling’s death Tori and Candy have not reconciled. With few practical skills in the real world Tori Spelling has struggled financially since the passing of her father.
As a NY will contest lawyer, I could see that Aaron Spelling’s last will & testament had all the red flags of undue influence we look for in NY estate litigation. I mean the will was a death bed will, executed within sixty (60) days of Spelling’s death. At the time of the document’s execution which contradicted his previous estate plans in place, Aaron Spelling was also suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease.
So why didn’t Tori Spelling roll the dice and contest her father’s will for a larger piece of his six-hundred-million estate? The answer is in the eight hundred thousand ($800,000.00) dollar bequest. If Tori Spelling unsuccessfully attempted to invalidate her father’s last will & testament she would lose what relatively little money she was guaranteed to inherit from Spelling’s will. However modest this amount may have seemed to Tori Spelling at the time, it is still enough money to cause someone pause. Additionally, there are very few NY will contest lawyers who would take a chance on litigation with such a high downside in the event the will contest is unsuccessful. Unfortunately for Tori Spelling this is a perfect example of how effectively No-Contest Clauses can deter a NY will contest in even the largest of estates. And these clauses are just as effective in more moderately sized estates.
If you are thinking about contesting a will or that a loved one may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY will contest lawyer. Feel free to call the NYC will contest lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NYC will contest lawyers have more than 50 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, Dutchess, as well as in the State of New Jersey.