Jill Morris and Joan Anderson met in New York City decades ago and have been romantically involved for almost 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 partner was so devastating. She had moved from Texas to New York 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 turned out that this was the beginning of a probate battle in which Ms. Anderson fought three nonprofits that argued that Ms. Morris' estate, worth approximately $ 9 million, should go to her, not to her.
The legal argument focuses on the essence of language in Ms. Morris’s will, particularly on a sentence in a subsection that, under common law, treats her wife just like a dozen friends who receive minor discounts. The estate war has also raised the question of whether a heterosexual couple who have been together for the same 20 years is faced with the same type of inheritance problem.
"At least the will is ambiguous," said Rick Scarola, the lawyer who represents Ms. Anderson and her mother's estate. “The law in New York states that a will should be interpreted for people who are spouses. However, the replacement court said that they are not married, so this is not the case. "
Mr Scarola has argued that the will is not only ambiguous, but also poorly worded.
The two sides agree that Ms. Morris, who holds a doctorate and worked as a psychoanalyst, was an intelligent and charitable woman. (She also seemed to have an eye for buying real estate in the right place at the right time.) They also agreed that she and Ms. Anderson, who worked in sales, had a long-term relationship.
But this is where the agreements end. The nonprofit groups say the will has to be followed and that Ms. Morris didn't intentionally marry – what she could have done after 2011 heterosexual couple.
The dispute is based on an article in Ms. Morris’s most recent will that was executed shortly before her death. The article distributes various personal items, real estate and money. A friend gets a glass of marble in a side table. Others get five-digit checks. An artist gets three of her own pictures.
The same article in the will gives Ms. Anderson much more valuable things: $ 100,000; a town house in the West Village worth more than $ 4 million; a beach house in Water Mill, New York, that is on the market for about $ 750,000; the contents of Ms. Morris & # 39; safe at a bank; a carousel horse; and several paintings.
However, the distribution of these discounts is based on a clause in which Ms. Morris makes these gifts to everyone, "provided he survives me by 30 days."
Other items make special gifts to friends without this 30-day clause. And as in every will, there is a residual clause that clears up what's left and, in this case, leaves three charities.
The three charities – the Defense Council for Natural Resources, MSF and Save the Children Federation – and the state of New York claim that the elderly Ms. Anderson did not live 30 days after the death of Ms. Morris, meet the estate requirement, and so on what was meant for them goes to charities.
Ms. Anderson's daughter and her lawyers argue that this is a misinterpretation of the will's intent. The lawyers point out that you cannot legally disown a spouse. Depending on the state, a spouse is entitled to at least a certain percentage of the estate. That Mrs. Morris and Mrs. Anderson had been together for so long would make them spouses if they were a heterosexual couple. They therefore argue that Joan Anderson should not be deleted from the will because she died only 12 days after Ms. Morris and her daughter should inherit the money.
The charity's attorneys said that Ms. Morris had decided not to marry and that she had also looked into the will and the naming of three charities she had supported during her lifetime.
New York's Surrogate Court judge Nora Anderson ruled in March for 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 chosen not to marry and that the court was governed by the way the will was written was.
Sharon Klein, a trusts and estates attorney who serves as president of family wealth in the eastern United States for Wilmington Trust, said that some of the wills were not clear, but that she understood the court's decision.
"It's just a poorly drafted will, with the 30-day survival clause in some places but not in others," said Ms. Klein. "You can argue on both sides. I am sure that the deceased wanted to benefit her life partner. The question is, did she want to benefit the daughter of her life partner? That she didn't nominate Joan's daughter as a beneficiary is pretty meaningful. "
Emlie Anderson has filed an appeal against the verdict and submitted a brief 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 as a whole, not as a clause by clause, Ms. Anderson's lawyers argue.
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 was the husband of Mrs. Anderson's other daughter, Kimberly, who had died a few years earlier. Mr. Martin has no legal training; Before he started webcasting, he was an engineer and promoter for rock bands.
Mr. Martin said in an interview that the couple regularly went to him for help, such as shoveling snow or hibernating the beach house. And they asked him to check Ms. Morris' will because he had the software to open the file. He said he was sitting with Ms. Morris when she revised the amounts she wanted to leave to her friends.
"I made the changes in the file and went my funny way," he said. “Then the will was challenged and all these people came from the wood that we never saw. I don't think Joan has seen most of these people in many years, if not decades. "
Mr. Scarola, lawyer for the Anderson estate, said: “One of the reasons the will is a mess is Charlie Martin, who is not a lawyer but is a little familiar with computers. He sat with Jill a few months before her death and took a version of her will to hear what she wanted to change. "
Charities lawyers cited earlier versions of the will to substantiate their claims to the estate.
There is another twist. The elder Mrs. Anderson was appointed executor. When she died, responsibility was transferred to Sue Renee Bernstein, a long-time friend who represents artists.
But Ms. Anderson and Mr. Martin questioned Ms. Bernstein's motives. Under New York law, an executor is entitled to a percentage of the estate as remuneration for managing the transfer of the estate. If nothing is sold and the property is simply transferred to an heir, as would have been the case with the two houses, the value of the property is not included in the calculation of the fee. However, if they are sold, their value is transferred to the executor's fee.
Given the lawyers' estimate of the estate value for Ms. Anderson, the executor's commission on a sale would be approximately $ 200,000.
Ms. Bernstein refused to address her compensation as an executor and defended her connection to Ms. Morris.
"I was a friend of the deceased Jill Morris for about 30 years," she wrote in an email. “She asked me to do her will. I take this responsibility seriously. "
The charities' lawyers referred to their appeal documents and approved the judge's decision.
Younger Ms. Anderson said the case was about more than will. It was about confirming the longstanding relationship between her mother and wife Morris.
"I'm telling the story the way it was," she said. "I have a feeling that something should count for the relationship they had. If they weren't gay, I don't think this would happen. "
The call will be heard this winter.