Panel Favors Ex-Father-in-Law in Will Dispute

, New York Law Journal


ALBANY - A dead woman's former father-in-law stands to inherit her only property as a result of a divided appellate court decision that hinged in part on whether the judiciary has any basis to explore the equities of the dispute.

Matter of the Estate of Robyn Lewis, 1170-1172/13, involved a woman who died at the age of 43 from alcoholism, the husband she divorced four years earlier, a lost will, a lingering dispute between their respective parents and the juxtaposition of New York and Texas law.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, case may be headed to the state Court of Appeals. Barring a successful appeal, the panel's decision allows the matter to be probated.

Records show that Robyn Lewis executed a will in 1996 that named her then-husband, James A. Simmons, sole beneficiary. Under the provisions of the will, if Simmons died before Lewis, his right to inherit would transfer to his father, James R. Simmons.

Lewis petitioned for divorce in 2007 in Texas, where the couple was living. At the time, Lewis was struggling with alcohol abuse and was told by a doctor that if she did not stop drinking she would be dead within six months.

Lewis died from alcohol-related complications in 2010, leaving only one significant asset: property in Clayton, N.Y. that had been in her family for generations. Lewis and Simmons had bought the property, valued at $200,000, from her mother and uncle.

When Lewis died, a fight erupted over who would inherit the Clayton property, where she had lived after the divorce.

Julian Modesti of Menter, Rudin & Trivelpiece in Syracuse, who is representing the ex-husband's family, said a divorce revokes a decedent's bequest to a former spouse under New York law. Here, he said, the only valid will is the 1996 document, which unequivocally names Simmons' father, the alternate beneficiary, as the beneficiary.

Evidence suggested that Lewis had drafted a new will before her death, leaving the property to her brothers. But the will, which was described by the decedent's friend and neighbor, is missing, raising a question of whether the new will or the old will ruled, or whether Lewis effectively died intestate.

The decedent's parents signed off on any rights they may have had so the property would go to Lewis' brothers.

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