A decision has been reached in the lawsuit filed by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia against the Maurice Sendak estate and foundation. The Rosenbach initiated the action in 2014, arguing that “it did not receive all of the rare edition books per the terms”1 of Sendak’s will. The Oct. 25 decision by the Connecticut Probate Court is largely favorable to the Sendak estate, with the court ordering that 252 of 340 books in dispute be awarded to the estate. Neither party has filed an appeal as of yet (the Connecticut statute of limitations for an appeal is 30 days after a decision is mailed).
Sendak, a prolific American illustrator and writer of children’s books, had a long-standing relationship with the Rosenbach, which has been exhibiting his works since the late 1960s. Sendak’s will included a precatory provision expressing his wish that his foundation, the Maurice Sendak Foundation Inc. (foundation), make arrangements for future display of his works at the Rosenbach, on terms and conditions to be determined by the foundation. The will also instructed that the Rosenbach receive all of Sendak’s “rare edition books.” It was this language that sparked the litigation, with the Rosenbach of the opinion that there’s no difference between “rare edition books” and “rare books.” The executors of Sendak’s estate disagree, contending that the word “edition” was an intentional distinction and shouldn’t be interpreted to encompass all of Sendak’s rare books.
One of the executors of Sendak’s estate and a member of the board of directors of the foundation, Donald A. Hamburg, a partner in Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe in New York, testified that he carefully reviewed every provision of the will with Sendak prior to it being signed, giving him “ample opportunity to change the language if he desired.”2 Hamburg also testified that the word “edition” appeared multiple times in prior instruments.
The court was left to decide the fate of 335 remaining items in question (a pre-trial settlement was reached regarding other disputed items). As the court’s opinion reflects, the court agreed with the argument that the use of the word “edition” in the phrase “rare edition books” had significance and had to be taken into account in interpreting the Sendak will. Though the opinion doesn’t detail a prescribed method for determining which books are rare edition books, the court was privy to the books themselves and to expert knowledge (both sides provided expert testimony) as a basis for its decision.
Less Isn’t Always More
As with any will dispute, the looming question is always could litigation have been avoided with better drafting. Jeffrey T. Golenbock, partner in Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe in New York, who represented the Sendak estate, said that Sendak was indeed advised to “put together a list” of every item he wished to bequest to the Rosenbach to make his intent clearer, but Sendak felt the task would be too burdensome and time taxing.
Though making an itemized list seems like a no brainer, attorneys know all too well that such an approach isn’t always feasible for clients with sizable estates and must make a judgment call to determine which situations call for this detailed method.
- In the Estate of: Maurice B. Sendak (unpublished opinion), File No.: 12-0827, State of Conn. Court of Probate, District of Northern Fairfield County, District 45 (October 25, 2016).
- Ibid. at p. 2.