NEW YORK RULE ON ARBITRATION FOR PROBATE DISPUTES
The idea of using quasijudicial means to settle disputes is as old as the country itself. More specifically arbitration is a method that parties utilize that is usually cheaper, quicker and often with much less formality, yet still adheres to principles of fundamental fairness. George Washington famously included a proviso in his will that outlined a method to arbitrate certain disputes in the execution of his will. Certainly this was no minor matter, as President Washington was perhaps the wealthiest landowner in Virginia and by extension maybe the wealthiest American at the time.
In today’s dollars, President Washington would be worth an estimated half a billion dollars, succeeded by perhaps only President John F. Kennedy’s wealth. By the time of President Washington’s passing in 1799, arbitration was already well established in the United States. New York no longer permits arbitration in the context of a dispute over a last will and testament, as it would unconstitutionally interfere with the power of the Surrogate’s Court to adjudicate disputes involving the disposition and transfer of property of decedents, the administration of estates and probate of wills. Matter of Jacobovitz, 58 Misc. 2d 330 (Nassau County, 1968). The same cannot be said of arbitration clauses in trust documents. There is much diversity of treatment of arbitration clauses found in trust documents, with New York taking a middle of the road approach to interpretation and enforcement of arbitration clauses in trust documents. That principle, however, only applies to the application of the transfer of property via an individual’s last will and testament. It does not apply to the mediation and adjudication of disputes in trust documents controlled by New York law.