SEPTEMBER 16, 2002 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 11
Adelaide Briskman was 82 when she died in Florida. She left property in that state and in Pennsylvania, and a will that she had signed just five months before her death. She also left a controversy between her family and the beneficiary she had named in her will.
In the last months of her life Ms. Briskman had transferred most of her property to Mark Resop, the branch manager of her bank. The assets were mostly placed in joint tenancy, including over $2,000,000 in an investment account and her Florida condominium. Mr. Resop promptly began to spend the money she transferred into joint tenancy, and he sold her condominium shortly after her death.
The only significant asset not transferred into Mr. Resop’s name before Ms. Briskman’s death was a commercial property in Pennsylvania which housed a branch of Mellon Bank. Mr. Resop petitioned the Pennsylvania courts for admission of the will naming him as beneficiary, and he was appointed as executor. A year later Ms. Briskman’s niece, Julie K. Palley, filed a challenge to that will, alleging that Ms. Briskman was incompetent when she signed the will, or in the alternative that Mr. Resop had exerted undue influence to get her to sign the instrument.
If Ms. Palley was successful in challenging her aunt’s will, an earlier will would have become the “last” will of Ms. Briskman. That earlier document named her lawyer at the time, one Richard Rosin, as executor, and it would have left her estate to various charitable causes.
The Pennsylvania probate court ruled in favor of Ms. Palley, finding the will to be invalid. Mr. Resop appealed to Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court. That court saw the case differently.
In the opinion of the appellate court, Ms. Briskman’s niece simply had no standing to contest her aunt’s will. If she had been successful, the court pointed out, she would not have been named as executor—that role would have fallen to Ms. Briskman’s lawyer. She also would not have received any portion of her aunt’s estate, since it would all go to charity. If she had nothing to gain by her challenge, said the appellate court, she had no business filing it, and the court ordered that it be dismissed and Mr. Resop reinstated as executor. Estate of Briskman, September 9, 2002.
Although the circumstances of Mr. Resop’s acquisition of Ms. Briskman’s property may appear suspicious, there is good news in the appellate court decision. Laypersons often express concern about someone challenging their wills, and anxiety about will contests is a common theme in estate planning. In fact, only someone who stands to gain from such a contest is even permitted to object to probate of a will; that is one of the reasons that will contests are relatively rare.