Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Lloyd Bonfield & Bridget J. Crawford recently published an Article entitled, Commentary on In Re Strittmater's Estate, Wills, Trusts, & Estates Law eJournal (2020). Provided below is the abstract to the Article.
This commentary on Strittmater’s Estate, 53 A.2d 205 (N.J. 1947), accompanies the rewritten Strittmater opinion in Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Trusts and Estates Opinions (Deborah S. Gordon, Browne C. Lewis & Carla Spivack, eds.) In the original opinion, the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals ruled that the decedent’s will should be set aside a product of an insane delusion, disregarding the evidence that Strittmater had long supported the named charitable beneficiary of her will (the National Woman’s Party) and that Strittmater had infrequent contact with the extended family members contesting the will. The feminist judgment of Professor Kristen Konrad Tiscione, writing as Justice Tiscione, reaches the opposite result to that of the Court of Errors and Appeals: Justice Tiscione upholds the lower court’s decision to admit the will to probate. Tiscone makes a robust and authentic presentation of Strittmater’s life story: that of a dutiful daughter who had assisted two aged immigrant parents and who became an eccentric (and possibly angry, lonely, or mentally ill) woman. Strittmater’s personal development should be understood in the context of the larger women’s rights movement in the U.S. The case raises basic questions how much autonomy the law grants to decedents upon death. The level of autonomy afforded by the law may depend on whether the decedent is male or female, socially conforming or more eccentric, and the particular biases of the deciding judges.
This commentary understands the feminist judgment in Strittmater to be consistent with the foundational principle of testamentary freedom. Had Tiscione’s rewritten opinion been the actual decision, insane delusion would have been revealed in this case as a male pretense for mounting a will challenge. A person may be eccentric, difficult, lonely, unusual, or even insane in some clinical sense, but that does not mean she lacks the ability to create a valid will. Strittmater's disposition in favor of the National Woman's Party should have been upheld.