QUESTIONS THE NEW YORK GUN OWNER SHOULD ASK BEFORE TRANSFERRING GUNS BY TESTAMENTARY WILL TO ONE’S HEIRS
PART 4: Given The Obvious Difficulties For A New York Resident And Gun Owner Who Wishes To Transfer Firearms To One’s Heirs – How Should A Firearms’ Owner Proceed If He Or She With BEQUEST Of Firearms To Heirs?
In the previous post of this multi-series article we looked at several New York Statutes impacting the transfer of firearms to one’s heirs. In this post we deal with the technical problems associated with bequests of firearms.
To begin, the owner of a firearm or collection of firearms must, of course, be mindful of the laws pertaining to bequests of firearms. And, let it be understood, we are here talking about lawful ownership of firearms and the lawful transfer of firearms, not criminal possession and criminal transfers of firearms.
In theory, at least, proponents of NY Safe would likely argue that your firearms are, indeed, your private property. Of course, if that were true, then you would have absolute control over them as well as exclusive ownership of them. After all, that is what the concept of private property means: exclusive ownership and absolute control. And, too, if that were the case, we would not need to spend considerable time, as we have done, discussing bequests of firearms. However, in New York, while you do have exclusive ownership of your firearms – that is to say, your firearms are not the property of the State, and they are not the property of the public at large – you never have absolute control over them. Thus, the statement, “a New York resident has absolute control over his or her firearms,” is not truly an accurate one. Indeed, the idea is highly implausible even to contemplate in a jurisdiction such as New York. Just take a look at the numerous New York laws that negatively impact your control over your own firearms and the specific manner in which your control over those firearms is constrained and restricted! In that regard, if you haven’t already done so, we ask that you take a look at the earlier installments of this multi-series Article: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Doing so will provide you with the conceptual framework you need upon which you can truly understand and appreciate the insidious way in which the New York Safe Act and other New York antigun laws associated with it operate to rob a New York gun owner of the private property interest one has in one’s own firearms. You will then be able to place this particular post, Part 4, in the proper context and make maximum use of it as you begin to draft for the first time your testamentary will or otherwise prepare to modify a presently existing testamentary will, to provide for the lawful transfer of your firearms to your heirs.
So, if you live in New York and you own and possess firearms, you don’t have absolute control over those firearms, in view of the numerous laws and regulations mandating and detailing how they are to be used and kept. And, the executor of your estate has even less control over them once you are gone, as your executor attempts to transfer the firearms to your heirs. So, in the absent of absolute control over your firearms, you do not have the enjoyment of your firearms while you are alive. And your heirs may not be able to obtain lawful possession of them upon your death.
You cannot transfer your firearms to whomever you want whenever you want, during your lifetime. And, your executor may not be able to transfer them at all to your heirs upon your death, regardless of your wishes as expressed in your testamentary will.
You are always in danger of losing possession of your firearms at the whim of the State while you are alive. And the State may deny you the right to transfer the firearms to your heirs, through your testamentary will, once you are gone. And, be advised, we are here concerned about transfers of guns after you die – in other words, bequests of firearms to one’s heirs. We are not dealing with the problems attendant to gun transfers while you are alive, which pose their own set of problematic issues.
Moreover, as we have heretofore pointed out, although you can, in your will, bequeath your firearms to whomever you wish, that means nothing if nothing can come of it. In other words, a bequest that cannot be effectuated is no real bequest at all. The effectuation of a bequest is what matters: whether the person to whom you make a bequest of firearms is eligible, under the law, to possess them. And, that is what really counts to the testator and to the eventual heir who hopes to inherit the testator’s firearms.
So, when making one or more bequests of firearms, you must consider the possibility, a real possibility, that your legatees – that is to say the prospective heirs of your gun collection, as stipulated in your will – may not be able to hold and keep them.
To assist you in preparing your will, if you are an owner of firearms and wish to bequeath your firearms to one or more heirs, we have prepared, for you, first, a series of questions that you, as a testator – the maker of the will – ought to ask yourself. These are questions that you, as testator, should ask whether you own one firearm, or a few firearms, or a substantial number of them — one or more of which may be part of an extremely valuable and rare collection — when preparing your will. And, we have provided you, second, a checklist that you may find helpful and that you may wish to utilize, as well, when considering the transference of your firearms to one or more heirs.
A WORD OF CAUTION BEFORE WE PROCEED:
We are not providing you here with advice on how to draft a testamentary will. We could not do that even if we wished to do so. That is a legal matter, and we strongly suggest you retain the services of a licensed attorney to assist you in that endeavor. Furthermore, in that regard, be advised there is no such thing as a “simple will.” As everyone is a unique individual – a truth that antigun proponents refuse to accept or to concede – and as every unique individual has his or her own unique set of needs and wishes and concerns and circumstances, a will must be drafted to meet that individual’s unique needs and wishes and concerns and circumstances.
Only a licensed attorney can best provide those services for you. There are no shortcuts; there is no person other than a licensed attorney who can properly assist you; and, where firearms are included in one’s estate, specific, considerable, and formidable obstacles exist to will formation that would not otherwise exist. Therefore, the need for a licensed attorney becomes critical.
The need for a licensed attorney to assist the testator in drafting his or her will becomes critical because the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate, who first comes into possession of the decedent’s firearms, is at considerable risk of incurring misdemeanor or even felony charges for failure to properly and timely deal with those firearms in strict accordance with law.
The most important consideration here is, then, that neither the executor of your estate, on the one hand, nor your heirs, on the other, runs afoul of the law once you are gone and your firearms remain to be disposed of. For, the last thing that you would wish to leave the executor or administrator of your estate, and your heirs, is a nest of trouble. And, the existence of firearms in one’s hands in a jurisdiction like New York is, unfortunately, an invitation to trouble – as much, if not more so, for the law-abiding New York resident and U.S. citizen, as for the criminal, the latter of whom couldn’t care less about New York gun laws.
What we are providing for you here is a solid foundation for one sort of bequest that you will be making — a bequest of firearms to your heirs. If you can answer the questions we provide for you, that will go a long way in assisting your attorney when he prepares your will for you.
QUESTIONS THE NEW YORK GUN OWNER SHOULD ASK BEFORE BEQUEATHING FIREARMS TO ONE’S HEIRS
Below are several of the questions you should ask yourself if you are a New York resident and happen to own one or more firearms and wish to bequeath that firearm or those firearms to others upon your death. Indeed these are the questions we would ask of ourselves. In fact, if anyone who is reading this post is a firearms’ owner, who resides outside New York and who resides in a jurisdiction that might be considered friendly to, or, at least, friendlier to possession of firearms by residents and U.S. citizens, consistent with the import and purport of the Second Amendment, several of the questions set forth below are certainly applicable to your jurisdiction as well, to the extent that you wish to plan now for, or in the foreseeable future for, the disposition of your firearms – your private property – to others upon your death.
ONE FURTHER POINT BEFORE WE PROCEED
The information we are providing for you below is a distillation of and expansion on certain content found in the following law review article: Note: A Testamentary Gift of Felony: Avoiding Criminal Penalties From Estate Firearms,” Nathan G. Rawling, 23 Quinn. Prob. Law Journal 286 (2010). The author of the law journal article may disagree with our interpretation of and application of various material that appears in his Note. Be that as it may, we mention the law journal article in order to give due credit to the source for much of the information that follows even if the manner in which we use that information here differs from the manner in which the author himself uses it in his Note, or might wish to use it for other purposes at a later point in time.
QUESTIONS A GUN OWNER SHOULD ASK WHEN CONSIDERING A DISPOSITION OF ONE’S FIREARMS TO ONE’S HEIRS
First, what procedures must the executor of my estate and my heirs be aware of and adhere to when coming into possession of my firearms so as to avoid criminal liability? We have, in this multi-part series, provided you with most, if not all, of the major New York Statutes you must be aware of. There might be others — at least laws tangentially related to and directed to bequests of firearms. And, they must all be construed together. The statutes that we have given you here provide your executor – or your heir, if the heir himself or herself is the first person to come into contact with the firearms upon your death – with his or her duty under the law. For example, and most importantly, upon your death, whoever comes into contact with firearms must surrender them to the appropriate authority within 15 days of receipt of them. Failure to do so may result in a felony charge.
Second, does the bequest of a particular asset involve an item defined as a firearm? This might not be as obvious at first glance as you may think. For example, suppose you have a firearm that has been rendered permanently inoperable. Does that firearm constitute a firearm qua firearm under the law? And, suppose you have an item that has the appearance of a true, functioning firearm, but it is a “dummy.” Do you still treat it as a firearm under the law? Suppose the firearm is an antique – or a quasi-functioning firearm such as an old musket or wheel lock? Is that object treated as a firearm under the law? Is a “starter pistol” classified as a firearm under the law? You must be prepared to answer these questions.
Third, of those objects that I have reason to know are firearms, how are they categorized? Which firearms are pistols? Which firearms are rifles? Which firearms are shotguns? Be prepared to describe the firearms with particularity.
Fourth, how many, if any, of my firearms are defined as an assault weapon under New York Law?
For New York residents and residents of other States that have laws specifically defining certain weapons as assault weapons and strictly controlling ownership and possession, of them, this question is a particularly critical one, to be given particular consideration to.
Fifth, how many, if any, of my firearms are classified as a ‘machine gun’ under New York law; and how many of them are classified as ‘selective-fire weapons’? Does New York law distinguish between selective-fire weapons and full-auto only weapons in its classification scheme? Do selective-fire weapons and full-auto only weapons fall under the nomenclature of assault weapons under New York law? Actually, under New York law selective-fire weapons and full-automatic weapons are not defined as assault weapons under. However, under Connecticut law, selective-fire weapons and full-automatic weapons are also defined as assault weapons.
Sixth, are each of my heirs eligible to possess firearms? Suppose that each of my heirs is eligible to possess firearms at the time I draft my testamentary will. But, how do I know that my heirs will be eligible to possess firearms in the future? Suppose I have four heirs and I have a substantial number of firearms that I wish to bequeath to each of them. Now, suppose, further, that, at the time I am preparing my will, each of my heirs has a valid pistol permit; that two of my heirs live in New York City; that one of my heirs lives in upper State New York; and that one of my heirs lives in Connecticut. Suppose further that, of the two heirs who live in New York City, one of them has a valid rifle and shotgun permit, but the second one doesn’t. How do these specific facts affect the eligibility of each of my heirs to receive the specific firearms I wish to bequeath to each of them?
Seventh, what are the applicable State laws? Apropos of the above example, you must be mindful of both New York law and Connecticut law. Both jurisdictions have exceedingly restrictive gun laws, but one, Connecticut, allows an eligible person to receive a firearm defined as an assault weapon. New York does not. As you may recall, we pointed out that, in New York, assault weapons can only be lawfully possessed by the original owner. Assault weapons cannot be transferred to anyone else, including a blood relative and prospective heir to firearms. In Connecticut, they can.
Eighth, what are the applicable Federal Laws? We haven’t discussed this, but you must be mindful of the possible impact of Federal laws on gun transfers. There are the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the National Firearms Act of 1934 both of which regulate transfers of guns and the National Firearms Act of 1934 also imposes a tax on gun transfers.
Ninth, what are the penalties for failure to follow – to the letter – the applicable State and Federal Laws? You must know the penalties and, to avoid, the penalties, you must know the law. The old adage, “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” is one that gun owners should burn in their memory.
Tenth, what do I need to know about gun transfers to heirs who live in another jurisdiction? If an heir to a bequest of firearms lives in another State, you must know and adhere to the requirements of transfers of guns to that resident who lives in a State other in New York. The requirements pertaining to gun transfers may be just as stringent in another jurisdiction as they are in New York. Even so, the laws pertaining to transfers will undoubtedly differ in several respects from one jurisdiction to another, and the very definition of ‘assault weapon,’ in particular, will differ from one State to the next. You must comply with the laws of each jurisdiction in which your firearms happen to be located and your heirs happen to reside.
Eleventh, what happens if one of my heirs who is eligible to receive firearms at the time I draft my will, becomes ineligible to receive firearms at the time of my death? Your will should provide the executor with appropriate alternative instructions in the event that certain classes of firearms cannot be transferred to a particular heir or if it comes to light that a particular heir is no longer eligible to receive firearms at all or if the heir simply doesn’t want to take possession of one or more firearms.
Twelfth, what do I do if the law pertaining to firearms changes? This is analogous to the question immediately above. Often – all too often of late – firearms laws become ever stricter. Ever more types of firearms become banned. And eligibility requirements become stricter. Once again, the maker of a will, the testator, should provide the executor of the estate, with specific instructions if it becomes evident that the bequest of firearms becomes too difficult to comply with or altogether impossible to administer. Ultimately, the testator may be compelled to sell the entirety of the collection of firearms well prior to his or her death in order to maximize the best price for the firearms. This would be unfortunate but would prevent headaches for the executor and heirs and would prevent the imposition of felony charges for failure to adhere to “the letter of the law” when coming into possession of the testator’s firearms.
A CHECKLIST FOR TESTATORS WHO OWN FIREARMS AND ARE IN THE PROCESS OF DRAWING UP THEIR TESTAMENTARY WILLS
- Accurately describe all firearms in your collection
- Be sure to provide the executor or administrator of your estate with clear, comprehensive, and explicit instructions for disposing of your firearms, so that all Federal and State gun laws, as well as applicable local ordinances, are adhered to.
- Determine whether each of your heirs to whom you wish to bequeath one or more firearms is eligible to own firearms generally, and, further, is eligible to possess the particular firearms you wish to bequeath to each heir.
- Confirm that each of your heirs has the necessary pistol licenses and, where applicable, such as and namely, New York City, a valid long arm permit.
- Do your heirs all live in New York? if not, what other State do one or more of your heirs live in, to whom you wish to bequeath one or more of your firearms?
- Are you familiar with the laws of each jurisdiction in which you own and possess firearms and in which each of your heirs live to whom you wish to bequeath your firearms?
- Are you familiar with the possible impact of Federal law on transfers of firearms to heirs. Little is said about the operation of Federal law. And we have not gotten into that here. But Federal Law as well as State law may have a decisive impact on the transfer of some or all of your firearms.
- Are any of your firearms classified as ‘assault weapons’ under the law of the jurisdiction where your heir or heirs reside, if other than New York?
- Do you own weapons that are classified as ‘machine guns?’ If so, you must definitely be familiar with Federal law as well as State law, concerning the transfer of those weapons to your heirs. There are specific eligibility requirements for ownership of and possession of fully automatic and selective fire weapons.
- If you own guns defined as machine guns, do your heirs have the appropriate current and valid federal licenses that would allow them to take possession of machine guns?
- Have you confirmed whether your heirs even wish to own and possess the particular firearm or firearms you wish to bequeath to them? You may presume, wrongly, that your heirs wish to take possession of your firearms. This is one type of property – unlike jewelry or expensive art or gold bullion or blue chip stocks or cash – where your presumption may be completely erroneous.
- Suppose, at the time of your death, one or more of your heirs, to whom you wish to bequeath your firearms, is no longer eligible to possess firearms. Or, suppose New York gun laws change and eligible recipients of your firearms, at the time you made out your will, are no longer eligible to receive certain firearms. Have you made arrangements for an alternative disposition of your firearms in the event that one or more of your heirs, to whom you wish to bequeath your firearms, is no longer eligible to possess firearms at the time of your death because of changed circumstances in that person’s life or in the event of further yet more draconian changes in New York gun laws that make it impossible for an executor or administrator to lawfully transfer firearms to your heirs?
- What are the penalties that your executor, or administrator or heirs might face for failure to adhere to all applicable laws pertaining to the lawful transfer of and possession of firearms? Know those laws! And, be certain that the executor or administrator of your will and that your heirs, too, are knowledgeable about the laws.
In the fifth and final installment of this multi-series Article, we will discuss a few other matters we have not previously touched upon – matters that are directly related to bequests of firearms. For example, one might assume that the New York gun owner, like a gun owner residing anywhere else in the United States, will have a store of ammunition for one’s firearms. That is only reasonable. And the gun owner will likely wish to bequeath ammunition to one’s heirs, along with one’s firearm or collection of firearms. That, too, is only reasonable. And, York law has much to say about commercial transactions involving ammunition. Yet, New York law has virtually nothing to say about transfers of ammunition that do not involve commercial transactions. So, can a testator bequeath his or her ammunition to the testator’s heirs? We will get into that in Part 5 of this multi-series Article.
And, then there is the issue of “large capacity ammunition feeding devices (magazines).” The New York Safe Act treats so-called large capacity magazines, separate and apart from the firearm itself. So, the firearm and the magazine are two distinct devices under New York law. Thus, the New York resident may have a firearm that is in fact, legal, but may have a magazine for that weapon, that, itself, isn’t legal, even though the magazine came with the gun – was, in fact, clearly, a critical component of the gun. Indeed, imagine, a gun dealer selling you a semiautomatic, but refraining from selling you the magazine that the manufacturer designed for it, to be used and sold together with it. Can a large capacity feeding device be transferred to heirs, along with the weapon that was manufactured with it, insofar as the magazine, reasonably, ought to be construed as integral to the weapon and would certainly have been sold with it? For, otherwise, why would an individual choose to purchase a semiautomatic weapon without the magazine? Would a person wish to purchase an automobile without the engine?
The New York Safe Act creates, for the law-abiding New York gun owner, an “Alice and Wonderland World;” a place where things are not always as they seem; a place where you must leave your reason and sanity at the door before entering. If a testator can transfer a semiautomatic firearm to his or her heirs, can that testator also transfer the “large capacity ammunition feeding device” that came with it? We will discuss the ramifications of that question in the next installment of this multi-series Article as well.
We will also talk about police officers — but not in their professional capacity as police officers. We will be addressing the issue of bequests of firearms to police officers. Does New York law treat bequests of firearms to police officers any differently from bequests of firearms made to a New York resident who is not an active duty police officer or is not a police officer retired from the force?
Of course, a police officer may lawfully possess and use so-called “assault weapons” when on active-duty, and, while on active-duty, the officer will most likely have access to “large capacity ammunition feeding devices” as well. Perhaps that officer may, and probably can, in accordance with Departmental policy, possess and use that same weapon when off-duty, too. That isn’t our concern here. What is of concern here and relevant to the discussion, is whether that officer may receive and possess a non-departmental assault weapon as a bequest, for example, from a dying uncle, who happened to have purchased it lawfully prior to enactment of the NY Safe Act and who had timely registered it subsequent to enactment of the Act, in strict accordance with the Act. The answer to that question may surprise you. The answer may, in fact, surprise many New York police officers as well. We will deal with that matter as well in the upcoming fifth and final installment of this multi-series Article.Copyright © 2015 Roger J Katz (Towne Criour), Stephen L. D’Andrilli (Publius) and Vincent L. Pacifico (Orca) All Rights Reserved.