Be Nice to Your Neighbors and Coworkers: You May be Named in Their Will

Find it hard to believe that the annoying guy in the adjacent cubby is planning to leave you money in his will? You are probably right about him -- but other folks may be.

A recent review of the 10,000 wills I have created over the past 17 years in practice revealed a curious trend: No fewer than 1500 of my clients left money to friends and neighbors. This was either instead of or in addition to more traditional bequests to family and charities.

This is a trend that I expect will continue as more of us take an active role in customizing our estate plans. We are moving away from the traditional view that only relatives should be named in the will. Instead, the will is becoming the vehicle by which we seek to benefit and protect those who are actually there for us now- whether or not we a related to them.

The trend mirrors the increasingly mobile nature of our society. Adult children often move out of state and elderly people come to rely on "surrogate" family members to help with errands, home upkeep and holiday meals. It stands to reason that a thoughtful testator will acknowledge these acts of kindness in their will. This doesn't mean that relatives will always take kindly to these non-family gifts. In fact, they almost always try to block the bequests in court after death.

This exact scenario is now playing out now in New York State Surrogate's Court. The will of 104-year-old copper heiress Huguette Clark is being (predictably) challenged by relatives who were not named in the document. Most of the relatives admitted under oath that they had never even met their distant relative. Even so, they believe they should inherit her estate. When the case resumes, the contesting relatives will almost certainly argue that the will that excluded them, was a result of "undue influence" and should, therefore, be knocked out.

If you think that someone to whom you are not related may name you in their will, there are important ways to protect yourself from litigation down the road: 1. Do not drive your friend to the appointment with the attorney; 2. Do not attend the meeting with the attorney; 3. Do not help select the attorney. These factors are almost always used later in court to challenge the "free will" of the person making the will.

The best way to avoid a will contest brought by aggrieved relatives? Avoid having a will. A trust is much harder for objectants to successfully contest. It should, therefore, be considered by anyone who wishes to benefit non-relatives in their estate plan.

Ann Margaret Carrozza is a practicing attorney who also served as a New York State Assemblywoman. She is a regular legal contributor to TV and print media outlets.