Witness Beneficiary Rule Applicable to Instrument Executed Outside of New York?
October 29, 2010
An interesting issue recently arose in an uncontested probate proceeding before the Bronx County Surrogate’s Court, namely, whether the disqualifying provision of EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) is applicable to an instrument executed outside of this jurisdiction.
In Estate of Alford, 2010 NY Slip Op 51707(U) (Sur Ct, Bronx County 2010), the sole beneficiary of the decedent’s estate was a Canadian citizen and was one of two attesting witnesses to the subject will. The execution of the instrument occurred in Ontario, Canada.
Pursuant to EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1),
(a) An attesting witness to a will to whom a beneficial disposition or appointment of property is made is a competent witness and compellable to testify respecting the execution of such will as if no such disposition or appointment had been made, subject to the following:
(1) Any such disposition or appointment made to an attesting witness is void unless there are, at the time of execution and attestation, at least two other attesting witnesses to the will who receive no beneficial disposition or appointment thereunder.
In other words, the statute mandates the invalidation of a bequest to the witness beneficiary if he or she is one of two attesting witnesses whose testimony would be required to probate the instrument. While a distributee, such as the beneficiary this case, remains entitled to his intestate share of the estate even if he is a witness to the execution of the will (EPTL §3-3.2(a)(3)), this beneficiary would inherit more under the will than his intestate share.
In making its determination, the court considered the following factors: (1) that EPTL § 3-5.1(c) provides that a will is valid in New York if it was validly executed in another jurisdiction; (2) that in Canada, a bequest to a witness beneficiary is void only if there was undue influence over the testator, which was not alleged here; and (3) in this particular case, no interested party contested the will or requested that the beneficiary testify. Thus, because it was determined that the instrument was validly executed pursuant to the laws of Ontario, Surrogate Holzman held that EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) was inapplicable. Accordingly, the beneficiary’s devise was not reduced to his intestate share by statute.
The court’s analysis begs the question of whether the conclusion would have been the same if the probate proceeding had been contested. Although the witness’ testimony would be necessary if that were the case, the fact remains that absent a finding of undue influence, the will and the bequest itself would be valid pursuant to the laws of the jurisdiction in which it was executed. However, if any allegations of undue influence had been made, such claims would call into question the validity of the instrument in Ontario, Canada, and thus, undermine two of the bases for Surrogate Holzman’s decision.
Consequently, it appears that the applicability of EPTL §3-3.2(a)(1) in the case of wills executed outside of this jurisdiction is
highly fact sensitive and must be determined on a case by case basis.