It is easy to be cynical about the “pots and pans,” “tchotchkes,” and “junk” – – the property that is often divided in a contentious manner at the bitter end of an estate litigation, or sometimes forgotten after years of litigation. An ongoing dispute in one of my cases led me to reflect on a New York Times piece by Annie Correal, which explores a very personal account of the Great Migration through a discarded item of what estate lawyers might call “personalty” or “tangible personal property” – – a photo album. The photo album belonged to the late Etta Mae Taylor, and through good fortune, it caught the eye of a journalist before it could be collected by DSNY. The story is remarkable. While Etta Mae Taylor’s photo album may not be of tremendous pecuniary value, it is arguably a treasure of a different sort.
Etta Mae Taylor’s photo album may cause some reflection about our own personal effects, whether they are of pecuniary value, sentimental value, or both. Ms. Taylor’s photo album is also an invitation to a mundane but perhaps useful discussion about tangible personal property in the law of trusts and estates.
What does “tangible personal property” mean? It depends. It generally means furniture, clothing, household goods, tools, jewelry, antiques, and other like personal effects. However, it can be up for interpretation. Quite often, wills and trusts dispose of personal effects with a general provision similar to the following:
I bequeath to Jane Doe all personal effects, household effects, automobiles, and other tangible personal property, whether located as at present at 40 Park Avenue, New York, NY, or elsewhere, at the time of my demise.
In an oft-cited case, the Surrogate’s Court held that cash in a safe deposit box did not fall within the definition of a tangible personal property in the face of the foregoing provision. As the Court explained “cash is not ordinarily thought of as ‘tangible personal property’ and here, under the familiar doctrine of ejusdem generis, the words ‘tangible personal property’ should be limited to property of the same or similar character as that described by the preceding words, to wit, personal effects, household effects and automobiles.”
What about a valuable stamp collection? Reggie Jackson’s rookie card? Fine art? Etc. . . Sometimes, the testator is detailed – – you will see a provision similar to the following:
I bequeath my jewelry, silverware, furs, leather goods, china, and any art to Jane Doe, if she shall survive me, and all my other tangible personal property shall be distributed to my children, in equal shares, or all to the survivor. If none of my children shall survive me or shall not desire any such property, I authorize my Executor to sell such property at such time or times, at such prices and on such terms as he or she shall deem advisable and to distribute the net proceeds of sale thereof as part of my residuary estate. However, my Executor shall be empowered to retain for the benefit of my children and any other family members any item of such property deemed to have a personal, a family or sentimental character such as pictures, memorabilia, keepsakes or the like, and he or she shall distribute such property among my children and any other family members at such time or times and in such proportions as he or she shall, in his or her sole and absolute discretion, deem advisable.
A fairly recent, and again, oft-cited and discussed decision of the Bronx County Surrogate’s Court, Estate of Rothschild, illustrates why specificity and clarity might avoid wasteful estate litigation. There, the petitioner received a bequest of tangible personal property pursuant to the following provision:
I give all of my tangible personal property (other than currency) including without limitation, wearing apparel, personal effects, jewelry, furniture, furnishings, pictures, paintings and other objects of art, silver, china, glassware and other household effects, books and automobiles to my wife, or if she does not survive me, to [the petitioner]. . .
The petitioner maintained that the decedent’s collections of stamps, platinum, gold, and silver coins (worth millions of dollars) passed to her under the foregoing provision as “tangible personal property.” Petitioner relied on a New York case, where the court held that collections of medallions, stamps and coins were “tangible personal property.”
The Bronx County Surrogate’s Court ruled against the petitioner, holding that the decedent’s collections were not items of “tangible personal property” that passed to the petitioner, but rather were residuary assets. The Court explained that “tangible personal property” is generally understood and construed “as being limited to tangible property having an intimate relation to the testator and ordinarily used by him.” It distinguished the principal case that petitioner relied upon – – in that case there was a disposition of tangible personal property “of every kind” (expansive language), while the foregoing will provision contained the language “and other household effects” (limiting language). The Court held that the tangible personal property identified in the will did not embrace items beyond the kind of household effects that the decedent used on a daily basis, and that the decedent’s collections were of a different character of property.
Notably, the disposition of valuable tangible personal property of the kind encountered in Rothschild could have a drastic effect on estate tax apportionment in a taxable estate. If the will directs against apportionment, and provides that estate tax is to paid from decedent’s residuary estate, and a tremendously valuable tangible item is disposed of as a pre-residuary bequest of “tangible personal property” (perhaps contrary to decedent’s true wishes), the residuary estate could be significantly depleted by estate tax, perhaps even leading to an interrelated computation. The tax allocation clause can sometimes be a very important provision in a will – – as illustrated in another blog post – – and perhaps in further blog posts.