A recent post to this blog discussed a case in which a court declined to remove a fiduciary based on allegations of a potential conflict of interest, but in the absence of actual misconduct on the part of the fiduciary. While it is certainly rare for a court to remove a fiduciary in the absence of actual misconduct, it is still rarer for a court to do so on its own initiative, i.e., sua sponte. But that is precisely what happened in Matter of Young decided earlier this year by Nassau County Surrogate Edward W. McCarty III.
The decedent, Joseph Young, was an acclaimed lyricist of the early 20th Century, having written such classic songs as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Dinah,” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” He died in 1939, intestate, survived by his wife, Ruth Young, and his father, Samuel Young. Pursuant to the law of intestacy applicable at the time, Ruth and Samuel were the decedent’s only distributees. Ruth was appointed administrator of the decedent’s estate in 1939 (and she died in 1973).
Fast forward 70 years.
In 2009, Nicholas Al Young, allegedly the Decedent’s grandnephew, petitioned the court for letters of administration de bonis non. (An administrator de bonis non or “d.b.n.” is a successor administrator appointed to administer estate property not yet administered.) Nicholas’s petition alleged that the decedent was not survived by either a spouse or a parent, and that his distributees included 22 nephews/nieces and great-nephews/great-nieces. He alleged that the value of the assets in need of administration was $9,000. The Court issued letters to Nicholas.
In 2012, Rytvoc Inc. and Warock Corporation — the alleged owners of copyrights in various musical compositions written by the Decedent — commenced a proceeding to revoke Nicholas’s letters. (In the interest of full disclosure, Farrell Fritz represented Rytvoc and Warock in the proceeding.) Rytvoc and Warock alleged that Nicholas, armed with his letters of administration, was wrongfully interfering with their ownership of the copyrights by attempting to enforce termination rights allegedly available under Federal law. They sought his removal pursuant to SCPA § 711(4), which provides for the revocation of letters obtained “by a false suggestion of a material fact.” Specifically, they alleged that Nicholas was ineligible for letters; that he obtained them only by virtue of his misrepresentation that the decedent was not survived by a spouse or a parent; that the individuals identified in the petition were not the decedent’s distributees; and, finally, that no administrator was necessary in any event, because the estate had no rights in the compositions for a fiduciary to exercise.
Nicholas moved to dismiss Rytvoc and Warock’s petition for lack of standing. He argued that SCPA § 711, which governs removal proceedings, confers standing only on “a co-fiduciary, creditor, person interested, any person on behalf of an infant or any surety on a bond of a fiduciary.” Rytvoc and Warock, Nicholas argued, were only “adverse parties in possible future litigation over the ownership of copyrights.” Rytvoc and Warock argued that, in fact, they were creditors of the estate, having filed a claim for damages resulting from Nicholas’s alleged wrongful interference with their intellectual property rights. The Court rejected that argument, however, and dismissed the petition for lack of standing.
But the song continues.
Rytvoc and Warock argued, alternatively, that the issue of standing was a “red herring” because the Court had the authority pursuant to SCPA § 719, and the inherent authority, to revoke Nicholas’s letters. Section 719 provides, in relevant part, that a court may revoke, suspend, or modify letters it issued; it may do so sua sponte, without a petition or the issuance of citation, in certain circumstances, including when any facts provided in SCPA § 711 are brought to its attention. As previously noted, section 711(4), provides for the revocation of letters obtained “by a false suggestion of a material fact.”
The Court began its analysis by reviewing the law governing revocation of letters obtained through misrepresentations, noting that a fiduciary’s removal is appropriate even where the alleged misrepresentation was made inadvertently and without an intent to defraud the court. It concluded, therefore, that “ it is not necessary for the court to ascertain whether Nicholas made the error in bad faith.” (Although it noted that “it appears from the court file that Nicholas did not attempt to deceive the court as to the fact that Ruth Young survived the decedent. Nicholas provided the court with numerous documents evidencing Ruth’s date of death.”)
The Court then reviewed the statutory framework governing letters of administration d.b.n., to determine whether Nicholas was eligible for letters. It explained in this regard that SCPA§ 1001 (made applicable to administrators d.b.n. by section 1007) requires that letters be issued to the distributees of an intestate decedent, or, if deceased, to their fiduciaries, or to any eligible “person who is not a distributee upon the acknowledged and filed consents of all eligible distributees, or if there are no eligible distributees, then on the consent of all distributees” (SCPA § 1001). It also explained that, pursuant to SCPA § 1001(8), where letters are not granted as set forth above, they are properly granted in the following order to: (a) the public administrator, (b) the petitioner, in the court’s discretion, or (c) to any other person or persons.
The Court stated that it “has an obligation to make sure that the proper person is administering the estate.” It concluded that “[i]t is unclear whether the proper person is administering this estate.” The Court also expressed its concern regarding the petition’s allegation that the value of the Decedent’s assets in need of administration was only $9,000, stating that “[t]he court is concerned that this figure is underestimated as it appears the decedent was a successful songwriter whose estate consisted of royalty interests which may be of a greater value than indicated given the possible copyright battle.”
The Court revoked Nicholas’s letters “[b]ased upon such concerns and due to the misstatement in Nicholas’ petition. . . .” It issued letters of temporary administration to the Public Administrator, directing that it “attempt to identify the fiduciaries of Ruth Young’s estate and Samuel Young’s estate who have a prior right to letters of administration de bonis non and to ascertain the value of the assets in need of administration.”
The moral of the story is that those seeking appointment as fiduciaries must take great care to ensure the accuracy of the allegations of their petition. A mistake, even one alleged to be innocent, could prove costly.