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New York Trusts & Estates Litigation

Dishonesty and Improvidence as Grounds for Disqualification of a Fiduciary

Posted in Fiduciaries, Probate, Trusts

A recent decision of the Richmond County Surrogate’s Court addressed a frequently litigated issue in Surrogate’s Court litigation – – whether the proposed or nominated fiduciary should be disqualified from serving in a fiduciary capacity on the grounds of “dishonesty” or “improvidence.” In the Estate of George Mathai a familiar dynamic was in play – – there was a dispute between the decedent’s children from a prior marriage and the decedent’s surviving spouse. The decedent’s two children from a prior marriage objected to the appointment of their step-mother as Administrator of the decedent’s estate. They claimed that she was unfit to serve as fiduciary on the grounds of dishonesty, hostility, and improvidence.

At the outset, the court noted that the decedent’s surviving spouse was first in the order of statutory priority to serve as Administrator under SCPA §1001(a). However, the statute gives parties interested in a decedent’s estate the opportunity to object to the appointment of a fiduciary, where the fiduciary “does not possess the qualifications required of a fiduciary by reason of substance abuse, dishonesty, improvidence, want of understanding, or…is otherwise unfit for the execution of the office.”

With the decedent’s children objecting to the appointment of their step-mother, the question became what, in this context, do the statutory terms “dishonesty,” and “improvidence” mean?

Addressing “dishonesty,” the Surrogate explained that in order to prove that a potential fiduciary is dishonest “it must be shown that the person has a tendency or ‘habit of mind’ toward wrongful action.”   An act of isolated wrongdoing is not enough to disqualify a fiduciary from serving on the basis of “dishonesty.” It must be shown that there was dishonesty in money matters to such an extent that it would lead to a reasonable apprehension that the estate would not be safe.

Addressing “improvidence” the court quoted earlier decisions where it was observed that “the quality of being improvident does not necessarily involve moral turpitude,” and that defined improvident acts as those that “would be likely to render the estate unsafe and liable to be lost or diminished.” The court further explained that misappropriation or mishandling of the decedent’s property falls within the meaning of improvidence.

In the Estate of George Mathai, the decedent’s children could not meet their burden of showing dishonesty or improvidence to disqualify their step-mother. Additionally, while they claimed that their step-mother should not be appointed on the grounds of hostility, the court dismissed their objection, repeating the rule that mere hostility between the fiduciary and the beneficiaries is not grounds for disqualification; hostility will only serve as a basis for disqualification where it jeopardizes the proper administration of the estate.

In this regard, it is worth noting that courts are mindful of beneficiaries or distributees seeking to impose their preference of fiduciary contrary to the testator’s choice of fiduciary (or contrary to the statutory order of priority) through their own misconduct. In this regard, beneficiaries are not permitted to bootstrap their own unreasonableness, hostility, and misconduct into a claim for disqualification or removal on the grounds of friction and hostility. As the New York County Surrogate’s Court has pointed out:

Courts are also loathe to indulge a beneficiary’s wish to dictate, at will or at whim, who the fiduciary should or will be. After all, where there is a clash between beneficiary and fiduciary, it is the latter who faces the potential for liability; it may be presumed therefore that the prospect of a surcharge will chasten the fiduciary to try to do right on an issue as to which the beneficiary him/herself is free to be wrong. As a corollary, a beneficiary should not be allowed to bootstrap his or her way to a new fiduciary by intentionally antagonizing the current fiduciary.

Ademption Results from Attorney-in-Fact’s Sale of Specifically Bequeathed Asset

Posted in Accounting

In Matter of Conklin, 2015 NY Slip Op 25094 (Sur Ct, Nassau County 2015), a contested accounting proceeding, the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court addressed, among other things, whether specifically bequeathed property sold by an attorney-in-fact prior to the decedent’s death, adeemed.  My article entitled Ademption and the Power of Attorney, published in the Fall 2009 New York State Bar Association Trusts & Estates Law Section Newsletter, contains a thorough discussion of the ademption doctrine in the context of conveyances by attorneys-in-fact.  While the article predated revisions to the General Obligations Law intended to curb abuses of power by attorneys-in-fact, this recent decision demonstrates that the law has not evolved significantly on the subject despite such changes.

As explained in my article,

Ademption is the ‘extinction or withholding of some legacy in consequence of some act of the testator which, though not directly a revocation of the bequest, is considered in law as equivalent thereto, or indicative of an intention to revoke.’ A bequest adeems when property that had been specifically devised no longer exists at the time of the testator’s death. (Jaclene D’Agostino, Ademption and the Power of Attorney, NYSBA Trusts & Estates Section Newsletter, at p.7, Vol. 42 [Fall 2009]).

In Conklin, one of the decedent’s two attorneys-in-fact, Lori Conklin (“Lori”) sold his cooperative apartment while he was residing in a nursing or rehabilitation facility. The decedent’s will had specifically devised the apartment to his two children and first wife, with a direction that it be sold after his death and the proceeds divided among the three of them. But a sale prior to death meant that the proceeds would become part of the decedent’s residuary estate, of which Lori’s mother and co-agent, Joan Conklin (“Joan”), was the sole beneficiary.

The attorney who prepared the power of attorney testified at the hearing.  He explained that Lori initially contacted him regarding preparing a power of attorney and doing Medicaid planning for the decedent. Lori and Joan had several meetings with the attorney on the subject– none of which included the decedent. The attorney advised them that the decedent should execute a new power of attorney because the old one (under which Lori and Joan had both been appointed) did not contain a major gifts rider. He further advised that the decedent’s apartment should be sold for purposes of Medicaid planning, and the proceeds thereof be deposited into an account in the decedent’s name.

The decedent executed the new power of attorney on March 24, 2010, at the nursing or rehabilitation facility where he resided.  It named Lori and Joan as co-agents, and contained a major gifts rider, authorizing the agents to make gifts to themselves or others in any amount (see GOL §5-1514).  The attorney met the decedent for the first time on that date, when he supervised the execution of the document. He testified that at that meeting, he discussed with the decedent his recommendation that the apartment be sold.

The attorneys-in-fact subsequently sold the apartment. On the date of the closing, the attorney contacted the decedent to ensure that he was still alive. The agents then deposited the $125,500 proceeds from the sale into an account in the decedent’s name. The decedent died approximately two weeks thereafter.

The proceeds benefitted Joan, as the residuary beneficiary of the estate. Mere days after the decedent’s death, Lori used her power of attorney to close the decedent’s account (a fact that raises its own issues), and utilized the proceeds to pay off Joan’s home equity loan.

Despite the fact that Joan ultimately benefitted from the sale, the court rejected the contention that there had been a breach of fiduciary duty by the attorneys-in-fact in selling the apartment and thus, that the proceeds of the sale should be returned to specific devisees. The court explained the general rule that if a specifically bequeathed item is sold, given away, lost or destroyed during a decedent’s lifetime, then the bequest generally fails, or adeems. “Moreover, ‘it matters not whether [the sale] came to pass because of an intentional or voluntary act of the testator’” (Matter of Conklin, supra at *5 [quoting Matter of Wright, 7 NY2d 365, 367 [1960]). In addition, “once the devise is found to be adeemed, the court is not permitted to substitute something else for it. This includes tracing the proceeds from the sale of the real property” (Matter of Conklin, supra at *6 [relying on Labella v Goodman,198 AD2d 332 [2d Dept 1993]; see also Matter of Wallace, 86 Misc 2d 175, 180 [Sur Ct, Cattaraugus County 1976] [opining proceeds of a sale of specifically bequeathed property “do not constitute the legacy bequeathed,” and thus, “the general rule of ademption applies and the legacy fails”]).

Given counsel’s advice to sell the apartment, and his contacting the decedent on the date of the closing, the court concluded that there had been no breach of fiduciary duty by the attorneys-in-fact, and thus, the foregoing general rules applied to this situation. Consequently, the specific devisees of the apartment were not entitled to the proceeds of the sale. The bequest had adeemed. Although this result might seem less than equitable on its face, it is in accordance with the laws of New York.

Court Enjoins Trustees from Going to Texas for a “Second Bite at the Apple” to Stop Beneficiaries from Inheriting

Posted in Construction of Wills and Trusts

In a March 6, 2015 decision in Levien v Johnson, NYLJ 1202721296511, at *1 (Sur Ct, New York County), the New York County Surrogate’s Court enjoined the trustees of a testamentary trust from proceeding in Texas to challenge the adoptions of two adults, Parvin Johnson, Jr. and Kenneth Ives, by the grandsons of the Decedent, Arnold Levien. As the great-grandsons of the Decedent, Messrs. Johnson and Ives would be members of the class of remainder beneficiaries of the trust entitled to distributions. If this story sounds familiar, it should. This blog’s May 2014 post discussed the Court’s April 4, 2014 decision which dismissed the trustees’ argument that the court should disregard the “unique and unforeseeable” adoptions because they were contrary to the Decedent’s intent and were fraudulently kept secret from the trustees during settlement negotiations that occurred just months before.

In that April 2014 decision, the Court recognized the Texas adoptions, but explicitly stated that it could not opine on their validity, as that was an issue for the Texas Court.  So, following that decision, and despite the dismissal of their claim that the grandsons fraudulently failed to disclose the adoptions, the trustees commenced an action in Texas to void the adoptions of Messrs. Johnson and Ives. However, in their Texas petition, the trustees alleged that the grandsons “committed fraud by failing to disclose their intentions to adopt two adults, Ives and Johnson, while litigating and negotiating the terms of the July 20, 2012 Stipulation of Settlement,” and asked the Texas Court to void the adoptions based on that alleged fraud (id. at *3).  The Surrogate found that that was the very same claim that the trustees had previously made before it, and which was dismissed on the merits in the Court’s April 4, 2014 decision.  Indeed, while the validity of the adoptions was an issue for the Texas Court, the issue of who benefits from the trust, the Surrogate found, was appropriately determined by the Surrogate’s Court, which continued to have jurisdiction.  The Court then determined that because the Texas Court could issue a decision regarding the alleged fraud that conflicts with its April 2014 decision, an injunction was warranted. The Court thus enjoined the trustees from seeking any relief in Texas concerning the July 2012 Stipulation of Settlement with the grandsons, or who benefits under the trust.  Interestingly, the Court “continue[d] to defer to the Texas court on the question of whether the Texas orders of adoption at issue can be vacated or voided based on any theory pled, cognizable, and proved in Texas” (id. at *5).  The Court appears to have left open the possibility that the trustees could challenge the adoptions based on theories not previously advanced in the Surrogate’s Court involving Texas adoption law.

In re Lawrence: What the Court of Appeals Says About Gifts from Client to Lawyer

Posted in Legal Profession

On October 28, 2014, the Court of Appeals rendered its long awaited decision in In re Lawrence, 2014 NY Slip Op 07291, reversing the decision by the Appellate Division in which it was held that (1) a revised retainer agreement, under which the law firm received 40% of the net recovery (i.e. $44 million) was procedurally and substantively unconscionable and that fees should be determined under the original retainer; and (2) the claim to recover gifts made by the client to her attorneys was timely.

In upholding the revised retainer agreement, the Court stated that the most important factor in determining whether it was procedurally unconscionable was whether the client was fully informed upon entering into the agreement, in that the client had “full knowledge of all of the material circumstances known to the attorney” (Slip Op. at 18).  The hearing evidence demonstrated that Mrs. Lawrence, who was involved in every detail of the case, fully understood the revised retainer agreement, and that layperson could comprehend the mathematical calculations used to arrive at the 40% contingency fee. Refusing to engage in a “hindsight analysis” of the revised retainer agreement, the Court concluded that the revised retainer agreement was not substantively unconscionable in light of the risks taken by the attorneys, and the value of their services over two decades of contentious litigation during which there was a lengthy trial and several appeals.

Regarding the gifts, the Court found that the claim was time-barred, and that the statute of limitations was not tolled by the continuous treatment doctrine, which, the Court reiterated, applies only where there is a claim for professional misconduct, and the professional’s ongoing representation directly relates to the specific transaction giving rise to the malpractice claim.  The Court specifically distinguished between a dispute concerning an attorney’s malpractice in rendering services and a dispute over a client’s payment of a bill or making of a gift; a critical distinction for purposes of the policy underlying the continuous representation rule.  The rule exists because “the client should not be burdened with the obligation to identify the professional’s errors in the midst of the representation as the client is hardly in a position to know the intricacies of the practice or whether the necessary steps in the action have been taken” and thus, “cannot be expected to jeopardize his pending case or his relationship with the attorney handling that case during the period that the attorney continues to represent the person” (Slip Op. at 27).   With respect to a gift or fee dispute, however, the Court held that the giving of a gift is “not the subject of any prior or ongoing representation,” and therefore, disputing it would not “force a lay person to undertake actions that he is ill-equipped to carry out” or place the client at risk for interrupting corrective efforts.

Applying those principles to the facts before it, the Court found that the client’s voluntary gifts were unrelated to the lawyers’ provision of any legal services. Importantly, there was no underlying claim of malpractice against the attorneys who received the gifts. Thus, the seminal requirement to apply the continuous representation rule was missing.  The Court further determined that there was no need for the lawyers to have any future representation vis-à-vis the gifts or to take any “corrective action.” It then concluded, “the purpose underlying the continuous representation rule would not be served by its application” (Slip Op. at 29).

In Terrorem Provisions That Violate Public Policy

Posted in Construction of Wills and Trusts

In terrorem clauses generally provide that, where a beneficiary under a testamentary instrument unsuccessfully challenges the instrument’s validity, the beneficiary will forfeit any interests obtained under the instrument.  Testators include in terrorem clauses in their wills in order to dissuade estate beneficiaries from taking action that is contrary to the testators’ wishes, as expressed in their testamentary instruments.  While a paramount objective of the Surrogate’s Court is to act according to testators’ wishes, in terrorem clauses must be narrowly construed, and certain in terrorem provisions are violative of public policy.  This post provides examples of in terrorem clauses that contravene public policy and, thus, are unenforceable under New York law.

Though in terrorem clauses are intended to prevent attacks on the validity of a will, Surrogate’s Courts have recognized that in terrorem provisions which purport to preclude a beneficiary from seeking the removal or suspension of a fiduciary nominated in the governing instrument, based upon the fiduciary’s misconduct, are violative of public policy (Matter of Rimland, 2003 WL 21302910, at *1-2 [Sur Ct, Bronx County 2003]; Matter of Fromartz, NYLJ, Oct. 22, 2005, at 29, col. 1 [Sur Ct, Kings County]).  Indeed, it “is disingenuous for [a party] to contend that [a testator] intended that [a fiduciary acting under a will] serve [as a fiduciary] even if [the fiduciary] violated [his or] her obligations under [the governing instrument] and [his or] her sacred duties of undivided loyalty” (see Rimland, 2003 WL 21302910, at *1-2). 

Former Surrogate Holzman’s decision in Matter of Rimland is highly instructive.  There, the petitioner, the income beneficiary of a testamentary trust, commenced a proceeding for the appointment of a fiduciary to pursue claims against the trustee (see id.).  In response, the trustee argued that the petitioner had triggered the governing will’s in terrorem clause and, therefore, forfeited her interest in the trust (see id.).  Surrogate Holzman was not persuaded by the trustee’s arguments, holding that the trustee’s interpretation of the in terrorem clause was violative of public policy (see id.).

Much like in terrorem clauses which purport to prevent a beneficiary from seeking the removal or suspension of a fiduciary on the basis of the fiduciary’s wrongdoing are violative of public policy, so too are in terrorem clauses which attempt to preclude a beneficiary from questioning the fiduciary’s conduct (see Matter of Egerer, 30 Misc3d 1229[A], at *1-4 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 2006]).  As Surrogate Czygier has explained, “any attempt by a testator to preclude a beneficiary from questioning the conduct of the fiduciaries, from demanding an accounting from said fiduciaries or from filing objections thereto will result in a finding that the pertinent language is void as contrary to public policy and the applicable statutes of the State of New York” (see id.).

For example, in Matter of Egerer, Surrogate Czygier construed an in terrorem clause which purported to disinherit a beneficiary under the testator’s will who filed “objections to [the] fiduciaries’ conduct, bad faith or for any other basis” (see id.).  The Surrogate found that the in terrorem clause was unenforceable as a matter of public policy, to the extent that it could be interpreted as preventing the beneficiaries from objecting to the fiduciaries’ conduct (see id.).

The lesson to take away from this post is that, while testamentary intentions are entitled to great respect, there are limits to which the Surrogate’s Courts will adhere to the wishes expressed by testators, especially concerning in terrorem clauses.  Practitioners should be mindful of the limitations, including the public-policy based concerns discussed in this article, in advising their clients with respect to in terrorem provisions.

Appellate Division Upholds Equitable Extension of Slayer Rule

Posted in Uncategorized

New York’s “slayer rule” essentially provides that if an individual kills another person, he has automatically forfeited any interest he may have had in his victim’s estate.  The rationale is simple – no one should financially benefit from his own crime. 

As we have explained in prior posts, this longstanding rule was never codified in New York, but is a common law principle emanating from the nineteenth century Court of Appeals decision in Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889). There, a grandson who intentionally killed his grandfather to ensure his inheritance, was barred from profiting from his own wrong. 

Applicability of the rule is generally straightforward, but in certain cases, the lines can become blurred — such as in Matter of Edwards, 2014 NY Slip Op 05873 (2d Dept 2014), where the killer sought to inherit from his victim only indirectly, through the estate of the victim’s post-deceased daughter. 

The facts of Edwards are somewhat complex.  Brandon Palladino pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of his mother-in-law, Dianne Edwards.  Brandon’s wife, Deanna, was Dianne’s only child, and the sole beneficiary of her estate.  Less than a year after Dianne’s death, Deanna died, intestate, from an accidental drug overdose.  Brandon was Deanna’s sole distributee.  Accordingly, Brandon stood to inherit his victim’s entire estate indirectly, through his wife’s estate.

In a 2012 decision, Suffolk County Surrogate John M. Czygier, Jr., opined that the slayer rule should be extended upon equitable principles to prohibit Brandon from inheriting in this manner.  Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed. 

Acknowledging that this was a case of first impression, the Second Department was guided largely by its decision in Campbell v Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010).  There, the court held that a surviving spouse forfeited her elective share by her own wrongdoing, having knowingly taken advantage of the decedent in a deathbed marriage for her own pecuniary gain. Although none of the statutory disqualification provisions of EPTL 5-1.2 applied to that situation, the court relied upon principles of equity in making its determination.

The Second Department also relied upon an Illinois case that presented facts analogous to those in Edwards.  In In re Estate of Vallerius, 259 Ill App 3d 350 (5th Dist 1994), the decedent was murdered by two of her grandsons.  Their mother post-deceased mere months later, leaving them as her only heirs.  The Illinois court held that the grandsons could not indirectly benefit from their own crime by inheriting the murdered grandmother’s estate through their mother’s estate, and explained that an intervening estate “should not expurgate the wrong of the murderer or thwart the intent of the legislature that the murderer not profit by his wrong.” 

Notably, in upholding Surrogate Czygier’s extension of the slayer rule, the Second Department rejected arguments that (1) Deanna’s inheritance vested immediately in her upon her mother’s death, allowing her to do what she wished with the property, and (2) extension of the slayer rule would raise “a host of enforceability problems” — for example, if the intervening estate resulted from a death that occurred a decade after the wrongful death or murder. The Court explained that it was unpersuaded by hypothetical scenarios and noted that the rule, as extended, would be applied on a fact-specific basis. 

In sum, the Second Department opined that Edwards was on point with both Campbell and Vallerius in that there was “a clear causal link between the wrongdoing and the benefits sought.”  Accordingly, it affirmed the Surrogate’s Court’s decision to exercise its equitable powers in extending the slayer rule to this case (see SCPA 201[2]).

“Easy” Cases Make Bad Law Too

Posted in Probate

In a decision that could well cause even the most casual trusts and estates practitioners to scratch their proverbial heads in wonder, the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Matter of Buchting, 111 AD3d 1114, 975 NYS2d 794 (3d Dept 2013), recently affirmed the determination of the Surrogate’s Court, Greene County, dismissing a “due execution” objection to probate, notwithstanding that both attesting witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify at their SCPA 1404 examination concerning the execution of the will, and notwithstanding that the Surrogate determined that summary judgment was improper because of “conflicts in the evidence.”

The petitioner in Buchting was the surviving spouse of decedent, who offered his will for probate shortly after his death.  The respondents were the decedent’s surviving children from a previous marriage. The attorney draftsman of the will (also the attorney who supervised its execution) testified at his SCPA 1404 examination in detail concerning the due execution of the will.  The two attesting witnesses were also called, but upon taking the stand, refused to testify, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

The respondents objected to probate on the grounds of lack of due execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and undue influence.  They moved to dismiss the petition based upon the petitioner’s failure to establish due execution.  The petitioner cross-moved for summary judgment admitting the will to probate.  It appears from the Appellate Division’s decision that the Surrogate denied both motions, determining that summary judgment was improper because of “conflicts in the evidence,” but nevertheless dismissed the respondents’ objections and admitted the will to probate.

On appeal, the Appellate Division first concluded that the Surrogate properly denied the respondents’ motion to dismiss the petition because the petitioner complied with the requirement, imposed by SCPA 1404(1), that she produce the attesting witnesses for examination.  The court rejected the respondents’ argument that an attesting witness who invokes the privilege against self-incrimination and refuses to testify has not been “examined” within the meaning of section 1404.  It relied upon its prior decision in Matter of Hutchinson, 13 AD3d 704 (3d Dept 2004), in which it held that an attesting witness’ invocation of the Fifth Amendment “is akin to a failure to recall the events surrounding a will’s execution” (see id.).  It further noted that a will may be admitted to probate even where no attesting witness recalls it execution.  While the law requires the examination of at least one attesting witness, it imposes no requirements upon the substance of the testimony.

The issue, according to the court, “thus distills to whether there was sufficient other evidence to establish a prima facie case of due execution, and we find that there was.”  In this regard, the court relied exclusively on the testimony of the attorney draftsman and the presumption of due execution that resulted from the attorney’s supervision of the will’s execution.  The court determined that, in light of this presumption, the respondents had the burden to come forward with evidence contradicting the testimony of the supervising attorney.  It further determined that the respondents failed to meet their burden, notwithstanding that they “challenge[d] the veracity of the supervising attorney and argue[d], based upon various minor irregularities in the documents that she drafted, that she was unfamiliar with the necessary procedure. . . .”  Thus, according to the Appellate Division, the Surrogate properly denied the respondent’s motion to dismiss the petition and dismissed the due execution objection. 

Notably, the court stated that “to preclude the probate of a will as a matter of law because both attesting witnesses refuse to testify on constitutional grounds would come perilously close to drawing a prohibited inference from the invocation of the privilege by nonparties” (id.).

The court held that the Surrogate erred, however, in dismissing the remaining objections, grounded in testamentary capacity and undue influence, particularly prior to discovery.

A few thoughts on the Buchting decision. 

First, it seems fundamentally unfair to saddle an objectant with the burden to come forward with evidence to rebut a supervising attorney’s testimony concerning the due execution of a will in order to survive summary judgment where both attesting witnesses — likely the only other persons in the room with the decedent – refuse to testify for fear of self-incrimination.  It is difficult to imagine how an objectant could ever meet that burden.  Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it seems plain that the mere fact that both attesting witnesses have invoked the Fifth Amendment in order to avoid testifying concerning a will’s execution should itself be sufficient to justify further proceedings before admitting the will to probate.  The decision in Buchting essentially ignores that a court is obligated by statute to “inquire particularly into all the facts” in order to satisfy itself “with the genuineness of the will and the validity of its execution” (SCPA 1408).

Second, the court’s decision is grounded in its determination that a witness who has refused to testify concerning the execution of a will for fear of self-incrimination is “akin” to a witness who fails to recall the execution.  However, the decision reveals no substantial authority for that comparison.  The Buchting court cites only Hutchinson as authority — but this is a chain without an anchor, as the Hutchinson court cites no authority (see 13 AD3d at 707 [“In our view, the submission of conflicting affidavits followed by a refusal to testify falls more closely in line with a witness who has ‘forgotten the occurrence’”]).  Another statement of the obvious — failing to recall a will’s execution and refusing to testify concerning the execution for fear of self-incrimination are very different things. 

Third, in order to conclude that the petitioner satisfied SCPA 1405(3) – which requires, as a condition for probate, the “examination” of at least one attesting witness – the court essentially determined that a witness who invokes the privilege against self-incrimination and refuses to testify has nevertheless been “examined.”  However, this seems to be in conflict with the Court of Appeals’ statement in Matter of Collins that, historically, the requirement that a witness be “examined” was “fulfilled when the witnesses took the stand and related what they knew of the circumstances” (60 NY2d 466, 471 n.3 [1983]).  Collins provides no authority for the proposition that a witness who refuses to testify altogether has nevertheless been “examined.”   

Fourth, even assuming a non-testifying witness could be deemed to be “examined” within the ambit of section 1405(3), that section requires actual testimony before a will may be admitted to probate.  It provides that where an attesting witness “has forgotten the occurrence or testifies against the execution of the will” the will may nevertheless be admitted to probate “on the testimony of the other witness and such other facts as would be sufficient to prove the will.”  But where the “other witness” invokes the Fifth Amendment, there is no testimony upon which to admit the will to probate.

Fifth, the court’s determination could well put a petitioner whose witnesses refuse to testify for fear of self-incrimination in a better position that a petitioner whose witnesses actually testify against the will.  A grant of summary judgment admitting a will to probate may be inappropriate where one attesting witness testifies against the will, even where the other witness and the supervising attorney testify favorably (see generally Matter of Jacinto, 172 AD2d 664 [2d Dept 1991]).  Why should the result be different where a witness – indeed, where both witnesses – refuses to testify concerning the execution of the will for fear of self-incrimination? 

Sixth, the presumption of regularity should not permit a court to turn a blind eye to facts calling into question a will’s validity.  A court should not employ a presumption where to do so would “elevate a legal construct above common sense” (People v Giordano, 87 NY2d 441 [1995]).  Even the presumption of legitimacy, “one of the strongest and most persuasive known to the law,” will fail if, in the words of Judge Cardozo, “common sense and reason are outraged by a holding that it abides” (Matter of Findlay, 253 NY 1 [1930]).  Depriving an objectant of a trial on the basis of the presumption of regularity, where both attesting witnesses refuse to testify concerning the execution of the will for fear of self-incrimination, offends both common sense and reason.

Of course, courts should resist the “temptation to overlook or ignore fixed legal principles when they are opposed to persuasive equities” because, as the ancient legal proverb teaches, “hard cases make bad law” (Dodd v Anderson, 197 NY 466, 469 [1910]).  However, “it might also be safely said that the occasional easy case makes law that is even worse” (People v Ramos, 40 NY2d 610, 628 [1976] [Jasen, dissenting]).  By placing undue reliance upon the presumption of regularity in order to deprive an objectant of a trial, in the face of facts calling into question the validity of the will, the court in Buchting made the case too easy, and established a troubling precedent.

Testamentary Capacity, Summary Judgment and a Testator’s Diagnosis of Dementia

Posted in Probate

Although summary judgment in a contested probate proceeding historically has been rare, the recent trend has been for Surrogate’s Courts to grant such relief with increasing frequency.  Consistent with that recent trend, Surrogate’s Courts have granted summary judgment dismissing probate objections alleging that a testator lacked testamentary capacity, notwithstanding the testator’s diagnosis of dementia before executing the propounded will.  This post discusses several cases in which a testator’s diagnosis of dementia prior to executing the propounded will was insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact to withstand summary judgment dismissing a capacity objection.

The threshold for establishing testamentary capacity is extraordinarily low (see Matter of Rabbit, 21 Misc 3d 1118[A] [Sur Ct, Kings County 2008]).  This is because the capacity that is necessary to execute a valid will is less than that which is required for any other legal transaction (see id.).  All that is necessary is that a testator: (a) understand the nature and consequences of making a will; (b) know the nature and extent of his or her property; and (c) know the natural objects of his or her bounty and relations with them (see Matter of Kumstar, 66 NY2d 691 [1985]). 

Additionally, as a testator’s mental capacity must be assessed at the precise time of the instrument’s execution (see Matter of Schure, 2012 NY Misc LEXIS 5755 [Sur Ct, Nassau County Dec. 17, 2012]), a testator need only have a “lucid interval” of capacity to execute a valid will (see Matter of Minasian, 149 AD2d 511 [2d Dept 1989]).  Indeed, courts have found that testators had testamentary capacity, even though the testators were afflicted with ongoing mental illness (see Matter of Esberg, 215 AD2d 655 [2d Dept 1995]), progressive dementia (see Matter of Friedman, 26 AD3d 723 [3d Dept 2006]), and physical weakness (see Matter of Swain, 125 AD2d 574 [2d Dept 1986]).  As a result, it should come as no surprise that Surrogate’s Courts have granted summary judgment dismissing capacity objections, despite that the subject testators were diagnosed with dementia before they executed testamentary instruments. 

Case in point, in Matter of Schure (a case in which Farrell Fritz, P.C. represented the proponent of the testator’s will), the testator’s children opposed the proponent’s motion for summary judgment, alleging that a trial was necessary on the issue of capacity because the testator had been diagnosed with dementia several years before he executed the propounded instrument (see Schure, supra).  Nassau County Surrogate Edward W. McCarty, III, did not credit the objectants’ argument and, instead, granted summary judgment dismissing the capacity objection, among all of the other objections (see id.) In admitting the testator’s will, dated December 21, 2005, to probate, Surrogate McCarty cited the following evidence: (a) in July 2005, the testator called the propounded instrument’s attorney-draftsperson and made an appointment to discuss his estate planning; (b) in July 2005, the testator met with the attorney-draftsperson and his associate to discuss his estate planning and family; (c) in late-November 2005, the testator once again met with the attorney-draftsperson, his associate, and another colleague from their firm to discuss the terms of the testator’s will; (c) in early-December 2005, the testator met with one of his treating physicians, who made no notes in his file of the testator having psychological difficulties during their meeting and signed an affidavit stating that he would have noted such difficulties had he observed any; (d) on December 21, 2005, the testator executed the propounded will in the presence of the attorney-draftsperson, his associate, and another experienced trusts and estates practitioner; and (e) the attorneys attested to the fact that the testator was of sound mind at the time that he executed the will (see id.).     

Monroe County Surrogate Edmund A. Calvaruso’s decision in Matter of Petix is also instructive (see Matter of Petix, 15 Misc 3d 1140[A] [Sur Ct, Monroe County 2007]).  There, the testator died on April 29, 2005, just six months after executing his last will and testament on November 2, 2004 (see id.).  Inasmuch as the testator’s son was the nominated executor and sole beneficiary under the propounded will, the testator’s granddaughter, the daughter of his predeceased daughter, filed probate objections, alleging that the testator lacked testamentary capacity, among other things (see id.).  The bases for the capacity objection were the following: “a medical note by a Dr. Blackburn, dated 12/19/02, which stated that [the testator] was demented to the point where his driving was impaired;” and “two police reports, one where [the testator] had lost his car, and one where [the testator] had lost his wallet” (see id.). 

Notwithstanding the granddaughter’s proof that the testator had been diagnosed with dementia, Surrogate Calvaruso granted summary judgment dismissing the testamentary capacity objection (see id.).  In doing so, the court found that the granddaughter failed to offer proof to suggest that at any time on November 2, 2004, the date upon which the will was executed, the testator lacked capacity to make a will (see id.).  The court also noted that “a dementia diagnosis and lack of testamentary capacity are not one in the same” (see id.).  Accordingly, summary judgment dismissing the testamentary capacity objection was warranted (see id.).

To withstand a motion for summary judgment dismissing a capacity objection, a probate objectant generally will need to do more than show that a testator was diagnosed with dementia prior to executing the propounded will.  In light of Schure and Petix, among other decisions, a diagnosis of dementia may not be sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact to survive a motion for summary judgment on the issue of capacity.

 

 

To be Family or Not to be Family? That is the Question

Posted in Construction of Wills and Trusts

Two recent decisions from the New York County Surrogate’s Court attempt to answer this question.  In Estate of Weisberg, decided on April 8, 2014, the court addressed the issue of marriage. Faced with competing petitions for letters of administration, the court was asked to find as a matter of law, that the cross-petitioner was the decedent’s wife and sole distributee of the decedent’s estate.  In Levien v Johnson, 2014 NY Slip Op 30995(U), decided on April 14, 2014, the court considered whether two adults adopted by the decedent’s grandchildren constituted “great-grandchildren” under the decedent’s will.  In both cases, the court was asked to find that these familial relationships existed as a matter of law. However, as these cases demonstrate, that is not always the case.

In Estate of Weisberg, the cross-petitioner moved for summary judgment for a determination that she was the decedent’s surviving spouse, and thus entitled to letters of administration. The movant made the following two arguments: (1) the court was bound by a judicial finding in Family Court that she and the decedent were married; and (2) she and the decedent were married in an Islamic ceremony which created a legal marriage under New York law.  The court was not persuaded by either position.

First, it declined to apply the doctrines of res judicata or collateral estoppel to the Family Court determination because that finding was not on the merits. Rather, it was an administrative action made solely for the purpose of assigning the matter to a referee. Indeed, because the parties reconciled, the Family Court never rendered any finding, either on the merits or as necessary to the relief sought, that the parties were married. Without that determination, the court was not bound by the Family Court’s determination, and it refused to consider it.

Regarding the validity of the Islamic ceremony, the court found that there was no material issue of fact that the petitioner and decedent participated in an Islamic marriage ceremony. The court noted, however, that it could not, as a matter of constitutional law, decide that the ceremony constituted a valid religious marriage ceremony. On the other hand, the court could consider whether that religious ceremony constituted a valid marriage under New York law.  However, it found that the movant’s proof in that regard was deficient because there was no evidence that the requirements for a valid marriage under the Domestic Relations Law were complied with; to wit, that the petitioner and decedent solemnly declared that they take each other as husband and wife, or that the Imam who performed the ceremony had the religious authority to do so. Thus, the court could not rule as a matter of law that the cross-petitioner was the decedent’s spouse.  

The issue in Levien was different, but raised an interesting question about familial relations in the estate context. The proceeding centered around a trust created under the decedent’s will which provided that upon the termination of the trust, distribution of the remainder would go to the decedent’s great-grandchildren per capita. Approximately  2½ years before the trust terminated by its terms, two of the decedent’s grandchildren (Stephen and Harlan) brought a proceeding to compel the trustees to invade the trust and make distributions to them from the trust principal to pay for ongoing medical expenses (they both suffered from muscular dystrophy).  That proceeding was resolved by a stipulation of settlement in July 2012, in which Stephen and Harlan agreed to relinquish all rights as beneficiaries of income and/or principal of the trust.  Three months later they each adopted an adult in Texas. They notified the trustees of the adoptions and sought to have those adopted adults declared the decedent’s great-grandchildren who were entitled to share in the remainder of the trust. It should come as no surprise that the trustees refused to recognize the adoptions, and they commenced a proceeding seeking a decree that the adopted children were not entitled to share in the trust. Interestingly, the trustees did not challenge the validity of the adoptions in the Surrogate’s Court proceeding.  They argued instead, among other grounds, that recognizing the adopted children as the decedent’s great-grandchildren would violate the terms of the decedent’s will and the decedent’s intent; that the adoptions were “unique and unforeseeable” which should have been disclosed during the settlement negotiations; and Stephen and Harlan were using the adoptions as a means to circumvent the settlement agreement.

In the end, the court rejected all of the trustees’ arguments.  On the issue of the decedent’s intent, the court stated that EPTL § 2-1.3(a) makes clear that the term “children” includes adopted children, unless the decedent “expresses a contrary intention.” The court then determined that there was nothing in the will indicating that the decedent intended for his great-grandchildren to be only those who were blood relations.  The court found that the will’s silence on the issue of adoption did not create an ambiguity. The court similarly rejected the trustees’ “unforeseeability” argument, given New York’s long-standing recognition of adoption as a means to create a parent-child relationship as a matter of law, and here, that the adoptions did not affect the rights of the remainder beneficiaries, but merely added to the class thereof.  Even if Stephen and Harlan had a duty to disclose the adoptions during the settlement negotiations, the court found that their failure to do so was not a basis for the court’s determination as to the status of the adopted children as remainder beneficiaries under the trust.

Rejecting the “sham adoption” argument, the court found that to the extent the trustees were claiming that the adoptions resulted from fraud, they needed to address that in the Texas courts. Unless and until that issue is determined in Texas, the court would give full faith and credit to the Texas adoptions. Furthermore, it found that the only way in which the adoptions would circumvent the settlement agreement, thereby paving the way for Stephen and Harlan to share in the assets of the decedent’s estate, is if their adopted children voluntarily share those assets with them, which the court was powerless to prevent.

 

Charitable Pledges: Not Found Money, You Have to Earn Them

Posted in Fiduciaries, Uncategorized

A donor writes in a pledge amount, signs the pledge card, hands it over to the charity, and is absolutely committed to that amount; end of story, right?  Not necessarily.  A recent case emanating from Kings County Surrogate’s Court, Matter of Kramer, N.Y.L.J. April 21, 2014, p. 24 (col. 6), shows that certain charitable pledges may not be as binding as they appear on paper.  The case provides an excellent primer on the operation of specific charitable pledges under the theory of unilateral contracts, and serves as a stark reminder to charities that to have the right to enforce a pledge that they must do more than just secure a signature on a pledge card.  The case also underscores to estate administrators the importance of scrutinizing and potentially challenging seemingly credible claims against an estate.

Kramer involved a motion by a charity, Educational Institute Oholei Torah-Oholei Menachem, for summary judgment dismissing objections to its petition to determine the validity and enforceability of its claim against the estate of Isaac Kramer.  The charity’s claim was based upon a pledge card and promissory note, in the face amount of $1,800,000, allegedly signed by the decedent approximately a year and a half before his death, and ostensibly payable six months prior to the decedent’s death.  The pledge was allegedly given for the purpose of supporting a building campaign proposed by the charity to construct a new ritualarium, or mikveh, for use of the charity’s members.  No payment on the pledge had been made by the decedent or demanded by the charity prior to the decedent’s death.  Representatives of the charity claimed they consciously withheld demands for payment because of the decedent’s illness shortly before his death.

Objections to the charity’s petition were filed by each of the Kings County Public Administrator, as fiduciary of the decedent’s estate, and four additional groups representing various purported testamentary legatees and distributees.  The respective objections raised multiple theories for rejection of, and affirmative defenses against, the charity’s claim including (i) forgery of the decedent’s signature, (ii) lack of due execution, (iii) lack of consideration, (iv) lapse upon the decedent’s death, (v) laches and unclean hands, (vi) expiration of the statute of limitations, (vii) fraudulent inducement, and (viii) the decedent’s lack of capacity.  Upon the charity’s summary judgment motion, two of the respondents cross moved for summary judgment upon an additional theory of the charity’s failure to demonstrate acceptance of the pledge by taking action in reliance thereon.

The Court granted the charity’s motion for summary judgment concerning the objections based upon lack of due execution, laches, unclean hands, expiration of the statute of limitations, and fraudulent inducement, because none of the respondents supported or addressed these objections in their responsive papers.  Thus, these objections were deemed abandoned.  The Court also found that no triable issue of fact was raised concerning the decedent’s capacity, and that the burden of proving the decedent’s incompetence was not met.  Accordingly, the charity’s motion for summary judgment was granted concerning the objections based upon capacity.  The charity also prevailed concerning objections based upon forgery of the decedent’s signature, as the Court found that the handwriting analysis report raised no triable issue of fact concerning its genuineness.

The final objection considered by the Court, lack of consideration, however, turned out to be dispositive against the charity.  It was clear from the facts and on the face of the pledge that it was made in furtherance of a specific purpose, namely a building project, rather than for the charity’s general educational and religious work.  As such, the Court noted that the pledge must be examined under the theory of a unilateral contract.  Under this theory, the signed pledge card is not the contract itself, but merely an offer to make a contract which the charity must then accept by taking action in reliance upon the offer.  The pledge, then, will not become binding until the charity has sufficiently acted upon the pledge so as to incur liability on the part of the donor. 

The Court stated that it has been the “noted policy of the courts to sustain the validity of subscription agreements whenever a counter promise of the donee can be sustained from the actions of the parties or it can be demonstrated that any legal detriment has been sustained by the promise in reliance upon the promised gift.”  For instance, charitable subscriptions have been deemed enforceable where the donee has made some substantive progress towards the charitable goal for which the pledge was made.  This would include starting construction, employing architects and paying for plans, raising additional pledges based upon the disputed pledge, or taking on a construction loan for the project.  The donor’s partial payment of the pledge, whether alone or in conjunction with concrete action on the part of the charity, has also been deemed sufficient to indicate acceptance of the unilateral contract.

Despite this broad policy in favor of enforcement, the charity in Kramer was unable to meet the burden to show that it had meaningfully acted in reliance upon the pledge.  Indeed, it was undisputed that no actual construction had begun on the proposed building project.  Nor was there any specific date upon which construction was to begin, or any reasonable timeframe for completion of the project.  The Court characterized the construction project as more of a “hoped-for occurrence” than an actual plan.  Moreover, despite its claims to the contrary, the charity could not prove that it had expended any sums of money on any construction related expenses, such as soil samples or architectural plans.  Nor could the charity produce any contracts or engagement letters from architects, engineers, or contractors.  There was also no proof of building permit or zoning applications.  Finally, though the charity claimed to have used the decedent’s pledge to solicit other pledges, no independent evidence of receipt or fulfillment of such additional pledges was offered.  In sum, the Court found that the charity had done nothing meaningful or substantive in reliance on the decedent’s pledge.  Thus, the charity’s motion for summary judgment on the consideration issue was denied and the cross-motions dismissing the charity’s petition were granted.

 The Kramer case should serve as a useful guide for charities in satisfying the requirements for establishing enforceability of specific charitable pledges.  It also gives estate administrators helpful factors to look for when challenging charitable pledges