In construing an in terrorem provision, or any part of a will, the paramount consideration is identifying and carrying out the testator’s intent. Although paramount, the testator’s intention will not be given effect if doing so would violate public policy. For example, an in terrorem provision that purports to prevent a beneficiary from questioning a fiduciary’s conduct is void as contrary to public policy. The recent decision of Matter of Sochurek illustrates the difficulty in reconciling the testator’s intention in respect of an in terrorem condition with the rights of beneficiaries to obtain an accounting or otherwise challenge the actions of their fiduciary. Brian Corrigan discusses the case in our latest entry.
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In terrorem clauses generally provide that, where a beneficiary under a testamentary instrument unsuccessfully challenges the instrument’s validity, the beneficiary will forfeit any interests obtained under the instrument. Testators include in terrorem clauses in their wills in order to dissuade estate beneficiaries from taking action that is contrary to the testators’ wishes, as expressed in their testamentary instruments. While a paramount objective of the Surrogate’s Court is to act according to testators’ wishes, in terrorem clauses must be narrowly construed, and certain in terrorem provisions are violative of public policy. In our latest post, Rob Harper provides examples of in terrorem clauses that contravene public policy and, thus, are unenforceable under New York law.
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