Woman fighting for late mother’s inheritance plans to appeal after Manhattan judge decides multi-million dollar fortune should go to charity
A woman is battling several charities for her late mother’s pricey inheritance thanks to a poorly-written will — a Manhattan court fight that has raised questions about the rights of unmarried gay couples and their children.
The will in question belongs to Jill Morris, an 84-year-old woman who left a multi-million dollar estate — including a West Village townhouse and a Hamptons summer home — to her longtime partner when she died of breast cancer on June 7, 2016.
But buried in the 11-page document was a clause requiring Morris’ partner, Joan Anderson, to outlive her by 30 days in order to inherit the homes. Anderson succumbed to a stroke 12 days after Morris.
In February, a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge ruled that, because Anderson died a few weeks too early, the homes she lived in would go to the three charities listed in Jill Morris’ will as “residuary beneficiaries” — Doctors Without Borders, the National Resources Defense Council and Save The Children.
That leaves Anderson’s daughter Emlie almost empty-handed.
Emlie Anderson says the judge should’ve realized that Morris never meant to include such harsh wording in her will, considering the women’s 18-year relationship. She plans to appeal the decision later this month.
“It’s upsetting to me. It’s like they’re trying to negate my mother and her relationship with Jill," she told the Daily News. “That’s what they’re saying, that their relationship wasn’t important."
The 30-day survivorship clause first appears on the second page of Jill Morris’ will, in a section doling out "gifts of tangible personal property” to various people, including Joan Anderson.
“I make the following gifts of tangible personal property to the following entities and to the following persons (provided that he or she survives me by thirty (30) days),” the will reads.
Morris left Anderson a diamond ring, three paintings, a carousel horse, her safety deposit box, $100,000 in cash — and the two pricey properties.
Lawyers for the three charities and the executor of the will argued in court that was proof enough that Jill Morris wanted the 30-day clause to apply to Joan Anderson — despite the fact that homes are considered real property, not tangible personal property.
They even submitted testimony from the lawyer who helped Morris finalize the will three months before her death, who claimed that was “unequivocally” Morris’ intent.
“In reviewing Article EIGHTH of the will with Jill, she unequivocally confirmed to me that each individual listed therein had to survive her by 30 days in order to take under her will,” the lawyer, Patricia Harold, wrote in an affidavit.
But Emlie Anderson’s lawyers submitted their own affidavit alleging that Harold couldn’t be trusted.
Attorney Mark Davis said it was doubtful that Harold talked about the 30-day clause with Jill Morris — and odd that the lawyer would have had the foresight to discuss the one issue at the center of the contested will.
“If, as Ms. Harold claims, the Testatrix (Morris) did state to her, outside of earshot of the witnesses, that she intended the 30-day limitation to apply to all dispositions in the Article (i.e., whether cash legacies, real property or tangible personal property), it is difficult to imagine why Ms. Harold did not make a simple correction to eliminate a significant ambiguity prior to the Will’s execution,” Davis wrote.
Davis also noted various other typos in the will — proof, he says, that Harold did not go through the document thoroughly.
Lawyers for Doctors Without Borders and Save The Children declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. Lawyers for the National Resources Defense Council did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The New York State Attorney General’s Office, which is required to get involved when wills go to court, also sided with the charities in court filings. The agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
When the three-year debacle came to a bitter end in February, Emlie Anderson was left scratching her head.
“They were like a married couple. They used to go away on trips together, they used to go to Spain, to Egypt. They went all over the world together, they traveled together constantly,” Anderson, 55, explained, adding that the women kept their sexuality private.
“They loved each other very much but they were both very nervous about people knowing that they were gay," she revealed. “Jill was a psychologist, she didn’t want her patients to know. They compartmentalized certain parts of their life.”
About a year and a half before Morris’ death, the women discussed the West Village townhouse and Hamptons home, a close friend told The News.
“There was a definitely a conversation at dinner amongst the three of us, once, where it was stated that Joan was getting the houses. Absolutely positively," recalled Charlie Martin, 59, who helped Morris draft part of the will. "It was made clear that Jill was giving Joan the two houses. Period.”
Joan Anderson was supposed to be the executor of the will. But when she died, that responsibility fell to a woman named Sue Renée Bernstein — one of Morris’ former New School students.
The legal drama began after Emlie Anderson reached out to Bernstein to execute the will.
“After I gave her the keys, she said I couldn’t go back to either house. I wasn’t allowed to look at my mother’s things. It was basically, give me the keys and I’ll take care of the cats and you just get out," Anderson said.
A lawyer for Sue Renée Bernstein also declined to comment, saying the facts of the case spoke for themselves.
A 30-day survivorship clause is a common feature in many wills and sometimes included to make sure certain items are left to specific people, according to a New York estate lawyer.
“When you put a 30-day provision, you’re almost saying, I want it to go to this person and I want them to get it — not their heirs, not anybody else,” said attorney Michael Korsinsky.
“It’s very highly probable that this was not the intent of the decedent (Jill Morris), but at the end of the day, because it was a poorly-drafted will, the judge had to make a decision," he said. “This is precisely why you need a good attorney who knows what they’re doing."
In her 15-page ruling, Manhattan Surrogate Court Judge Nora Anderson noted that the will was “replete with ambiguous language and numerous errors.”
Because the women weren’t married, the judge wrote, the document couldn’t be interpreted in Joan Anderson’s favor — which often happens with spouses.
There was good reason the couple didn’t tie the knot, Emlie Anderson told The News.
“Nobody is taking into account that the reason they didn’t get married is because they were older and the stigma of being gay was such a big barrier," she said. “They were the same as a married couple. They even went to marriage counseling, five years in.”