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New York Trusts & Estates Litigation

Proof of Wrongdoing and the Right of Election

Posted in Right of Election

In 2010, the Appellate Division, Second Department, made it clear that principles of equity grounded in rules of forfeiture can adversely impact a surviving spouse’s entitlement to an elective share. In Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010),  the Appellate Division rendered a decision of first impression when it denied the right of election asserted by the decedent’s surviving spouse based on the equitable principle that a party may not profit from his or her own wrongdoing.  In Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883 (2d Dept 2010), the Appellate Division adhered to the foregoing principles when it reversed a decree of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, which granted the petitioner, the surviving spouse of the decedent, summary judgment determining the validity of her right of election against the decedent’s estate. Following the 2010 opinion in Matter of Berk, the case continued to wind its way through the Surrogate’s Court as it headed towards trial.

Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, had the opportunity to readdress the parties in Matter of Berk, and provide practitioners with further instruction on the issues impacting the claimed elective share. Specifically, the Court modified an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.) by (1) adding as an issue of fact to be tried the question of whether the petitioner, the decedent’s surviving spouse, exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate, and (2) replacing so much of the order, as imposed the burden of proof on appellants, the executors of the estate, by clear and convincing evidence, with a provision that placed the burden of proof on appellants by a preponderance of the credible evidence (see Matter of Berk, 133 AD3d 850 [2d Dept 2015]).

As readers may recall, the underlying proceeding involved a petition by the surviving spouse of the decedent for a determination of the validity and effect of her exercise of her right of election against his estate pursuant to EPTL 5-1.1-A.  In their answer, the appellants, the executors of the estate, asserted as an affirmative defense that the decedent was incompetent to enter into a marriage, that the petitioner knew that he was incapable of entering into a marriage, and that the petitioner had exercised undue influence over the decedent to convince him to marry her.

As stated, on a prior appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed an order granting summary judgment to the petitioner, finding that there was an issue of fact as to whether the petitioner had forfeited her right of election by her alleged wrongdoing; that is, by marrying the decedent knowing that he was mentally incapable of consenting to a marriage for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate. The Court further ruled that the appellants’ counterclaims alleging undue influence were improperly dismissed.

On remitter to the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, the parties submitted proposed statements of the issues to be determined at trial, as well as proposals concerning the burden and quantum of proof on the issues. In the order appealed from, the Surrogate’s Court limited the issues for trial to whether the decedent was mentally incapacitated and incapable of consenting to his marriage to the petitioner, and if so, whether the petitioner took unfair advantage of him by marrying him for the purpose of availing herself, as his surviving spouse, of his estate at death. The Surrogate further ruled that the appellants/executors had the burden of proof on the issues by clear and convincing evidence. The Surrogate did not include the issue of undue influence as a matter to be determined.  The executors appealed.

The Appellate Division opined that the issue of whether the petitioner had forfeited her elective share under the circumstances raised by the proceeding was based on the equitable doctrine that the petitioner should not profit from her own wrongdoing. Where a claim of wrongful conduct is made, the parties asserting same, i.e., the appellants, have the burden of proving the wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.  The Court further held that evidence of a confidential relationship between the petitioner and the decedent, by virtue of their marriage, was not, in itself, proof of the petitioner’s wrongdoing, and, as such, did not shift the burden of proof to the petitioner to prove otherwise.

Additionally, the Court held that an alternative ground for forfeiture of the right of election was whether the petitioner exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her. Again, the Court determined that the appellants had the burden of proof on this issue by a preponderance of the credible evidence.

The Berk matter is now primed for trial. Stay tuned for what is sure to be an instructive outcome.

Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Turnover Proceeding as Time Barred

Posted in Fiduciaries

A recent decision of the Kings County Surrogate’s Court[1] demonstrates the importance of thoroughly analyzing all aspects of a statute of limitations defense prior to making a dismissal motion.  In Matter of Coiro, 5/6/2016 NYLJ p.23, col. 2, the court denied such a motion, determining that an SCPA § 2104 turnover proceeding was timely.  Notably, the parties disputed both the applicable limitations period and the date of the claim’s accrual.  Side-stepping both those issues, the court determined that a statutory toll rendered the claim timely in any event.

Determining whether a claim has been timely asserted requires analysis of at least three factors – the applicable limitations period, the date of the claim’s accrual, and whether any toll applies.  (I say “at least” three factors because, in an appropriate case, a court may determine other matter – such as whether a defendant/respondent is equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations, where specific actions by the defendant/respondent “somehow kept [the plaintiff] from timely bringing suit” [see Zumpano v Quinn, 6 NY3d 666, 674 (2006)].) Coiro involved all three factors.

Janet Coiro died on January 16, 2012. Some 19 months later, one of her daughters, the executor nominated in her last will and testament, offered the will for probate, receiving letters testamentary on December 18, 2013.  On June 12, 2015, more than three years after the decedent’s death, the executor brought a turnover proceeding pursuant to SCPA § 2104,[2] alleging that on the day after the decedent died, January 17, 2012, the respondent (the decedent’s son) submitted a power of attorney to the bank at which the decedent maintained several accounts, adding his name to those accounts.  Allegedly, respondent also deposited a matured Treasury bill (of which the executor claimed to be the beneficiary) into one of the accounts, and later withdrew or transferred all the funds from the accounts.  Respondent moved to dismiss the proceeding as time-barred.

The parties disputed the applicable limitations period. Respondent argued that the three-year period applicable to conversion claims governed, while the executor argued that respondent’s action in improperly adding his name to the decedent’s bank accounts after her death warranted application of the six-year limitations period applicable to fraud-based claims.

Petitioner also argued, alternatively, that even if the three-year “conversion” limitations period applied, the claim accrued not on the date on which the respondent added his name to the bank accounts, but on the date he transferred the balances thereof, to wit, May 17, 2013, and thus the proceeding was timely in any event.

While noting that discovery and turnover proceedings are usually subject to the three-year statute of limitations applicable to actions in replevin and conversion, i.e., CPLR 214(3), the court further noted that it was not required to decide whether that period or a six-year period applied.  It also noted that it was not required to decide the date of accrual of the claim.  The court determined that the proceeding was timely in any event, by reason of the toll provided in CPLR § 210(c).

Section 210(c) provides that “[i]n an action by an executor or administrator to recover personal property wrongfully taken after the death [of a decedent] and before the issuance of letters,  . . . the time within which the action must be commenced shall be computed from the time the letters are issued or from three years after the death, whichever event first occurs.”

The court determined that the limitations period applicable to the claim asserted in the proceeding was tolled until December 18, 2013 (the earlier of the date of issuance of letters or three years from the date of death). The executor commenced the proceeding on June 12, 2015, less than three years after the end of the toll.  Thus, even applying the shorter, three-year limitations period, the proceeding was timely.

When performing a statute of limitations analysis, care must be taken to determine whether a toll is applicable. Aside from the toll provided in CPLR 210(c), a practitioner should consider whether any other toll applies.  Such tolls might include the “insanity” toll provided in CPLR § 208, or the “fiduciary toll” applied in cases such as 212 Inv. Corp. v Kaplan, 44 AD3d 332 (1st Dept 2007).  Continuing undue influence or duress can also operate to toll a limitations period (see Pacchiana v Pacchiana, 94 AD2d 721 [2d Dept 1983]).

[1] The version of this decision that appears on lexis.com erroneously refers to this decision as emanating from the New York County Surrogate’s Court.

[2] The Court’s decision states that the proceeding was brought pursuant to section 2104; it was likely brought pursuant to section 2103.

Representation of Charities by the Attorney General

Posted in Legal Profession, Probate

Many estate practitioners are familiar with litigated matters in which a charity interested in the proceeding is cited, as is the Attorney General, and both the Attorney General and private counsel for the charity appear in the proceeding. In such cases, both the Attorney General and the charity’s counsel represent the charity (although as a practical matter, since the charity has private counsel, the Attorney General may take a less pronounced role in the litigation, electing instead to defer to the charity’s chosen counsel).  What happens, however, when the status and identity of the charitable beneficiary is less than certain?  That was precisely the situation facing the New York County Surrogate’s Court in the probate contest involving the much-publicized estate of Huguette Clark.

Huguette Clark died on May 24, 2011, leaving a Last Will and Testament dated April 19, 2005, which disinherited her family.  However, just six weeks earlier, on March 7, 2005, Huguette executed a will naming her family as residuary beneficiaries.

Article FOURTH of the propounded will directed that the nominated executors form a private foundation to be named the Bellosguardo Foundation and “take all necessary steps to organize, operated (sic) and qualify said foundation as an educational organization, as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Code, for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the Arts.”

In June, 2011, a bare two weeks after Huguette died, and notwithstanding that the propounded will had not been admitted to probate, three entities called the Bellosguardo Foundation were formed — one in California, one in Delaware, and one in New York.

Ultimately, members of Huguette Clark’s family, represented by Farrell Fritz, filed objections to probate.  The New York State Attorney General appeared in the now-contested probate proceeding to represent the charitable interests under the will.  In addition, a private law firm filed a Notice of Appearance in the proceeding, purporting to appear on behalf of an entity called the “Bellosguardo Foundation” (there was no indication which foundation — i.e., the California, Delaware, or New York foundations — the law firm purported to represent).

The probate proceeding was scheduled for trial in September 2013.  There were numerous motions submitted by the various parties in the months preceding the trial.  While most of those motions were evidentiary in nature, one, brought by Farrell Fritz on behalf of the Clark family, sought to strike the private law firm’s Notice of Appearance filed on behalf of the so-called “Bellosguardo Foundation.”  The family took the position that the foundation was not the foundation referenced in the will and, therefore, had no standing to participate in the trial.  Farrell Fritz argued on behalf of the family that the propounded will’s direction regarding the formation of a foundation had no legal effect prior to the admission of the will to probate.  Although the propounded will directed that the executors form a foundation, there were no executors prior to the will’s admission to probate, and, thus, the foundation referenced in the propounded will did not, and could not, exist prior to probate.  That a person incorporated an entity with the same name as the foundation to be formed in the event the propounded will were admitted to probate, and then caused that entity to appear in the probate proceeding, did not make the entity the “Bellosguardo Foundation” to be formed under the will.

Nor was it necessary to permit the foundation to participate in the proceeding, as the charitable interest under the propounded will was being adequately represented by the Attorney-General, who “has the statutory power and duty to represent the beneficiaries of any disposition for charitable purposes (EPTL 8-1.1(f); other cites omitted)” (Alco Gravure Inc. et al. v. The Knapp Foundation, 64 NY2d 458, 465 [1985]).  Moreover, while a charitable beneficiary has standing to participate in a litigated proceeding in which it is interested, the Attorney General’s standing to represent a charitable interest is exclusive where the charity’s status is indefinite or uncertain, or, to express it differently, where the charity is “not within a class of potential beneficiaries that is ‘sharply defined and limited in number’ (Alco Gravure, 64 NY2d at 465).”  (Matter of Rosenthal, [Helmsley Charitable Trust], 99 AD3d 573 [1st Dept 2012]).

Both the Public Administrator of New York County and the Attorney General’s office supported the Clark family’s motion. On the eve of the trial, Surrogate Anderson rendered her decision, granting the motion.  The Surrogate noted that, “[t]he Attorney General, who is charged under the Estate’s Powers and Trusts Law § 8-1.4(e)(2) with representing all charitable interests under the subject will, has been demonstratively adequate and diligent in representing the interests of the Bellosguardo Foundation to be formed.  Further, the Attorney General has exclusive standing to represent a beneficiary of a disposition for charitable purposes when such beneficiary is indefinite or uncertain (EPTL §8-1.1(f))” (Estate of Huguette M. Clark, NYLJ 9/27/13, p. 25, col. 1. [Sur Ct, New York County]).

Subsequently, the parties in the litigation were able to settle the contest.  Thereafter, the true Bellosguardo Foundation was formed, as mandated by the Propounded Will as admitted to probate by the Surrogate.

Contingency Fees – Size Matters

Posted in Legal Profession

While the Court of Appeals last year upheld the validity of contingency fee agreements in estate matters, especially in litigation, where it approved contingency fees of over forty million dollars when the actual time spent was a fraction of that value (see Matter of Lawrence 24 NY3d 320 [2014]), a recent New York County Surrogate’s Court case, Estate of Fanny Goldfarb, NYLJ, Oct. 14, 2015, p.22 col.2, confirms that the size of an estate can still be a major factor in determining the reasonableness of a contingent fee, even though the services rendered and the result achieved were exemplary.

In Goldfarb, litigation counsel was retained by the executor to pursue a SCPA 2103 turnover proceeding to recover a co-op apartment that had been transferred to the decedent’s cousin prior to her death.  The fee arrangement was formalized in a written retainer agreement which provided for a contingent fee of one-third of any recovery relating to the transfer of the apartment.  The attorney commenced the proceeding on behalf of executor, and within six months a settlement was reached, whereby the coop apartment was returned to the estate plus $75,000 cash, waiver of a $100,000 bequest, and $6,163 in purported commissions relating to other transfers discovered to have been made to the respondent, which had not yet been brought before the court.

The attorney sought a contingent fee of $251,995, representing one-third of the value of the apartment plus the other monies and waivers recovered. The Attorney General opposed the fee, arguing that it was “extremely excessive.”

Relying primarily on the “size of the estate” criteria enunciated a Matter of Potts, 213 AD 59 (4th Dept 1925), aff’d 241 NY 593 (1925), the court reduced the contingent fee to $115,000, and ordered the attorney to refund the excess without interest.  The court concluded that “such allowance recognizes that the value of respondent’s services outweighs the time he spent in the matter, yet also recognizes that the other factors discussed above do not support a fee that, as the Attorney General notes, would make respondent ‘in effect the major beneficiary of the estate.’”

Fee cases are fact specific. However, contingency fee arrangements are particularly important for smaller estates where a fiduciary may be unable to find counsel who would handle the matter on an hourly basis, and without whom there might be no recovery.

A Real-Life Final Exam Fact Pattern: That Pesky Per Stirpes Statute

Posted in Construction of Wills and Trusts, Trusts

As the year draws to a close, I sometimes recall the stresses of final exam season from my law school days. In the spirit of reminiscence, I’ll pose a quick final-exam-like fact pattern:

Jane owned a parcel of real property in New Hyde Park, title to which she transferred in June 2002 to her irrevocable lifetime trust. Jane listed the New Hyde Park property on Schedule A to the trust agreement, and also executed and recorded a deed transferring the property to her trustees. The trust agreement provides that upon Jane’s death, the remaining corpus of the trust is to be divided among her two children, Nancy and Thomas, in equal shares per stirpes. Nancy and Thomas are specifically named as remainder beneficiaries under the trust agreement.

In February 2013, Thomas predeceased Jane, leaving no spouse or issue, and having no will.

In January 2014, Jane created a will which included a general bequest of all of her real property and her residuary estate to her three grandchildren, Scott, John and Jessica, the children of Nancy.

Jane died in July 2014. At Jane’s death, her irrevocable trust was still in existence and the deed to the New Hyde Park property was still in the name of the trustees of Jane’s trust. Scott sought admission of Jane’s January 2014 will to probate and received preliminary letters testamentary. Assuming admission of Jane’s January 2014 will to probate, who will receive title to the New Hyde Park property?

If you want to cheat, the answer can be found in a recent Nassau County Surrogate’s Court decision, Matter of Wilder (NYLJ, September 3, 2015, p.25, col.6). The crux of the dispute decided by Surrogate McCarty was that both Nancy, as trustee and beneficiary of Jane’s irrevocable trust, and Scott, as preliminary executor and a legatee of Jane’s estate, claimed an interest in the New Hyde Park property.

Nancy asserted that the property was owned solely by the trust and should pass 100% to her. As the trust distribution is to be per stirpes, she referred to EPTL 1-2.14, which provides:

“The property so passing is divided into as many equal shares as there are (i) surviving issue in the generation nearest to the deceased ancestor which contains one or more surviving issue and (ii) deceased issue in the same generation who left surviving issue, if any. Each surviving member in such nearest generation is allocated one share.”

Nancy claimed that the per stirpetal division and distribution should be made at her generation level, as it was the nearest to Jane and contained both surviving and deceased members. Since Thomas did not leave issue, Nancy argued only one share should be created, passing entirely to her as the sole surviving trust beneficiary.

Conversely, Scott asserted that 50% of the New Hyde Park property was owned by Jane at her death and should pass to her grandchildren pursuant to her January 2014 will. Scott claimed that because the trust was irrevocable and the remainder over to Nancy and Thomas was not conditioned upon their survival, a 50% interest in the New Hyde Park property vested immediately and absolutely in Thomas upon transfer of the real property to the trust. When Thomas died, his estate owned that 50% real property interest and it ultimately passed by intestacy to his sole intestate distributee, his mother Jane. Thus, Scott argued, when Jane bequeathed her real estate by her will, this 50% interest in the New Hyde Park property passed to her grandchildren.

Who was right? Neither, party entirely. As with many final exam questions, the fight over interests in the New Hyde Park property was a red herring. The Surrogate clarified that the dispute at issue was properly over a 50% remainder interest in Jane’s trust, not a 50% interest in the New Hyde Park property. Whether Thomas had any interest when he died, it would only have been an interest in the remaining trust property, not the New Hyde Park property transferred to the trust. For example, the New Hyde Park property could have been sold by the trustee and neither Thomas, nor his estate, would have standing to prevent that.

But the question still remained whether Thomas had any remainder interest in Jane’s trust even though he predeceased Jane. Surrogate McCarty noted EPTL 2-1.15 which provides that when the remainder of a trust passes to two or more designated beneficiaries and such remainder provision is ineffective in part, without an alternative disposition, the ineffective portion passes to the remaining designated beneficiaries. Thus, if the trust remainder provision was ineffective as to Thomas, due to his predeceasing Jane, the trust remainder would pass entirely to Nancy as the sole remaining beneficiary. If, however, the trust remainder portion for Thomas vested both immediately and indefeasibly, the trust remainder provision would have been effective despite Thomas’ death, and EPTL 2-1.15 would not apply.

The Surrogate next determined that Thomas’ remainder interest in the trust vested immediately upon the trust’s creation because Thomas was specifically named, and this creates a strong inference of vesting. As for whether the vesting was indefeasible, the words “per stirpes” created a potential condition for defeasance of Thomas’ vested interest, because they indicated Jane’s intent that Thomas’ death might lead to his issue taking his previously vested share. Thus Thomas’ lack of issue became the deciding factor.

The Surrogate rejected Nancy’s interpretation of the per stirpes provision under EPTL 1-2.14. The term per stirpes provides for division among a class of persons, and it is not possible to make a per stirpetal ‘division’ among one person. If Thomas had died with issue, then a class would have existed and a per stirpetal division could have been made. Since Thomas had no issue, the per stirpes provision is not operative. Moreover, the “per stirpes” qualification language in the trust agreement meant that Thomas’ vested interest would only be defeated if Thomas both (1) died before Jane, and (2) died leaving issue surviving him. Since both conditions were not satisfied, Thomas’ previously vested interest in the trust remainder was not defeated by his death. As a result, Thomas’ estate would be entitled to a 50% remainder interest in the trust, which would pass to Jane by intestacy and be disposed of by her will.

How did you score on the exam? More importantly, perhaps, despite the legal logic of the result, do you think this is the result Jane intended? Jane’s property ultimately remained in her family, but would your answer to that final question have been different if Thomas had made a will giving his property to a non-family member? As with most exam-type fact patterns, careful trust drafting could have prevented the dispute.

The Essentials of a Discovery Proceeding

Posted in Uncategorized

This month’s blog post will address a recent decision by the Appellate Division, First Department, entered in In re Perelman, that helps reiterate and define the parameters of discovery proceedings. The case is interesting not only for its facts and the issues they presented, but for its litigants: Ronald Perelman, of Revlon and corporate raider fame, and James Cohen, the President and CEO of Hudson News, and President of Hudson Enterprises.         

The Decedent, Claudia Cohen, a well-known gossip columnist at the time of her death, was the sister of James Cohen, and was Ronald Perelman’s former spouse. She died on June 15, 2007, with an estate amounting to approximately $68 million, survived by her daughter, Samantha, who was her sole surviving heir. Pursuant to the terms of her Will, Claudia, after making some specific bequests, left the residue of her estate to her daughter, in trust, until a stated age, and appointed Mr. Perelman, who was Samantha’s father, as the executor and trustee thereunder.

James and Claudia Cohen were the children of Robert and Harriet Cohen. Robert died several years after Claudia, in 2012, and Harriet is still living. Over the course of his life, Robert amassed a considerable fortune through his ownership and control of a number of family businesses, including Hudson News. James participated in these family businesses for his entire career.

In June 2010, Perelman commenced a discovery proceeding against James Cohen, his two sons, Justin and Robert II, Hudson News Company, and Robert Cohen, seeking information and a turnover of assets allegedly belonging to the Estate of the decedent within the knowledge, possession and/or control of the Respondents. Subsequent to the filing of his initial petition, Perelman amended his pleading in order to, more specifically, assert claims against James Cohen for fraud and undue influence in effectuating transfers of Robert Cohen’s business interests to himself to the detriment of his sister, Claudia, and her estate. The Amended Petition sought, amongst other things, to recover any interest of Claudia in one or more of the various Cohen family businesses, including but not limited to Hudson News, which may have been misappropriated by James.

It is significant that the amended petition failed to identify any specific property that Claudia owned at the time of her death that was being withheld by the Respondents, or any specific property that was converted from her by the Respondents. Rather, it was predicated upon Perelman’s supposition that Claudia owned an interest in the Hudson News group, based upon the allegations against James Cohen, and his desire to test that belief through an examination of the books and records of the company.

It is worth noting that the discovery proceeding came at the heels of multiple proceedings that had been instituted by Perelman in his fiduciary capacity against members of the Cohen family in the New Jersey State and Federal courts, all of which he lost. It is also important to note that in the context of the foregoing litigation, Perelman sought and obtained discovery of more than 2.1 million pages of documents, and conducted 30 depositions. That discovery revealed that the only interest Claudia had owned in the family business during her lifetime was .36% of 1 share of stock of Hudson News, which she sold in 1990.

The Respondents moved to dismiss the Amended Petition arguing that Perelman’s claims were barred by documentary evidence, and on the basis of the statute of limitations, res judicata and collateral estoppel. More specifically, the Respondents claimed that the unequivocal documentary proof established that the Decedent sold her entire interest in Hudson News in 1990, and owned no interest in any other Cohen family business at death. Further, they alleged that SCPA 2103 did not permit an unbridled search for unknown and unidentified assets based on nothing more than a surmise and a possibility that the Decedent may have owned those assets.

Perelman, nevertheless, maintained that he was entitled and duty-bound as fiduciary to determine, amongst other things, whether Claudia transferred her entire interest in Hudson News and was paid in full for that transfer, and whether she held any interest in any of her family’s other businesses. Further, Perelman maintained that SCPA 2103 has been broadly construed so as to allow a “fishing expedition” in order to assist the fiduciary in recovering property or administering an estate.

In an opinion and Order, dated February 15, 2015, the Surrogate’s Court, amongst other things, denied the motion to dismiss finding that the documentary evidence left unresolved questions as to the interest of the Decedent in Hudson News and Hudson Enterprises, that dismissal on the basis of the statute of limitations was premature, since the Amended Petition did not identify a time when any alleged wrong occurred, and that the executor had a responsibility to marshal the decedent’s assets and the right to conduct discovery to satisfy himself and the beneficiaries that he diligently attempted to ascertain the scope of those assets.

Finally, the Court rejected the Respondents’ res judicata and collateral estoppel claims holding that the issues raised by the New Jersey litigation were distinct from those raised in the New York proceedings. An appeal followed.

Although the appeal addressed multiple issues, one of the principal issues was whether SCPA 2103 discovery is tantamount to a fishing expedition, or something more limited in scope.

The Respondents maintained that while discovery pursuant to SCPA 2103 is often labeled a “fishing expedition”, the authorities did not consider it to be a fishing expedition with an unlimited license. Rather, they argued that a discovery proceeding only lies where it is alleged that it relates to specific personal property or money or the value or the proceeds thereof.

On the basis of the foregoing, Respondents claimed that Perelman was simply on a mission to open up the books and records of Hudson News and its related entities rather than pursue estate assets, which he knew did not exist.

Moreover, to this extent, Respondents argued that the documentary evidence (consisting, in part, of the Shareholders Agreement for Hudson News, the decedent’s tax returns, and the balance sheet from her 1993 divorce from Perelman) unequivocally established that the Decedent sold her entire interest consisting of .36% of 1 share in Hudson in 1990, and that she had no other interest at death in the enterprise.

Perelman, on the other hand, argued SCPA 2103 affords a party broad latitude to explore a Decedent’s assets, tantamount to a fishing expedition. Given this scope, it was Perelman’s contention that the burden rested on the Respondent’s to show that regardless of what information might be elicited in discovery, it was inconceivable that the examination could lead to any information that would assist the fiduciary in recovering or administering estate assets.

To this extent, Perelman maintained that the documentary evidence failed to satisfy this burden.

The Appellate Division rejected Perelman’s argument, unanimously reversed the order of the Surrogate, and dismissed Perelman’s claim for discovery.

Notably, on the issue of 2103 discovery, the Court iterated and reminded us all that a fiduciary seeking discovery pursuant to the statute cannot go on an unabridged fishing expedition to search for assets of an undefined nature that he has a hunch belongs to the estate.

Rather, citing the decision in Matter of Castaldo, 180 AD2d 421 (1st Dept. 1992) the Court held that a fiduciary invoking the statute must demonstrate the existence of specific personal property or money which belongs to the estate, or even a reasonable likelihood that such specific property might exist.

Significantly, in this regard, the court held that, in light of the documentary evidence submitted by Respondents, Perelman had failed to satisfy his burden of establishing that the Decedent may have held an interest in the family business after the sale of her stock in 1990. The Court found that Perelman’s contentions that she did hold such an interest were speculative at best.

Perelman made a motion for leave to appeal this result to the Court of Appeals, which application was denied, with costs.

So, at least from the First Department’s perspective, and perhaps the perspective of the Court of Appeals, we are seemingly left with the lesson that unless a petition for SCPA 2103 discovery seeks specific property or money that is in the possession or knowledge of a Respondent, or with reasonable likelihood is in the possession or knowledge of the respondent, the proceeding must be dismissed.

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).