Quite often, a person makes a verbal promise to another person that after the person’s death, the other will be given a particular asset. But that promise is only worth the paper that it is printed on.
Words Without Action
There are only a few ways to transfer assets after a person's lifetime, and those few ways are dependent upon steps taken during the person's lifetime -- creation of a will or trust, creation of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship, and making someone a designated beneficiary. Verbal promises are mere words and are essentially without legal effect.
What If "Everyone Knows" About the Verbal Promise?
Same result. If a person had a will, then the will controls. If the person did not have a will, the state's laws of intestacy control. But verbal promises, even if confirmed by a dozen members of the clergy with their hands on the Bible, mean nothing.
Isn't That Unfair?
Maybe. But fairness is not really the point here. The point is reliability. It's easy enough and inexpensive enough to make out a will. The process of passing assets from one person to another or from one generation to the next should not be filled with chaos, uncertainty, and the spotty and sometimes self-serving recollection of family members.
What if there's Absolute Proof of the Person's Intention?
The only proof that will count is a will or other lawful designation And a will is defined by New York State law as a written document that is witnessed by at least two persons. That rule applies except in extraordinarily rare instances - for example, when a person is a soldier at war.
How To Make Sure One's Intentions Are Honored
This can be a very delicate issue. When a family member makes a promise as to what will happen to the house or the car or the jewelry or the artwork or the coin collection or antique furniture or anything else, remind that person that the only ways to make sure that that intention is honored is for the person to make a will that specifies the bequest or to retitle the asset, or to make the gift now. You may be uncomfortable saying this to the family member, and that is understandable. But, don't count on getting the asset if one of those two steps is not taken.
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