Readers in Camden County may be interested to hear of an ongoing dispute over a 351-year-old will. The dispute illustrates how, even after three-and-a-half centuries, a person's end-of-life wishes can still be the subject of probate litigation.
In the last days of his life, a wealthy merchant left seafront property consisting of 35 acres. His intention over 350 years ago was that that income gained from the property would support a public school system. In time, 167 cottages were built on the site, and the rental income from those cottages has benefitted the local school system ever since.
Considered the nation's first trust, the last will and testament of John Payne is now embroiled in probate litigation. While Payne decreed that the land never be sold or wasted, the trustees now say the trust is no longer viable and have petitioned the probate court to disband the trust and sell the property.
The probate court agreed last December and approved a settlement that would essentially tear up Payne's will and sell the property as condominiums to the residents. A dispute arose when residents filed a lawsuit in 2006, complaining about rental increases.
But now, literally hundreds of people from the community have sued to block the action of the probate court, arguing that the settlement not only cheats the school system but violates the precise intentions of William Payne as outlined in his last will. The probate dispute has now reached an appeals court in Massachusetts, the home state of the long-gone merchant. Arguments are scheduled to be heard there on March 2.
While it remains to be seen how the court will resolve the probate dispute, the case has gained national interest. It underscores the importance of the clarity and durability of a last will and testament. Courts typically decide these kinds of cases by honoring the intentions of the decedent, though when those intentions can no longer be practically followed, an attempt to change those arrangements may result in a legal dispute.
Source: New Jersey Herald, "351-year-old will sparks bitter dispute in Mass.," Rodrique Ngowi, Feb. 24, 2012