Estate litigators arguably see more probate contests than any other type of conflict. While the details are always unique, they almost always include allegations that someone unduly influenced the decedent to change his or her will to either disinherit, or favor, a particular person.  These cases also often include an allegation — which is usually contested — that the purported influencer was in a “confidential relationship” with the decedent.  The frequency of such claims beg the questions (1) what exactly is a “confidential relationship,” and (2) what is the practical benefit to an objectant in establishing that one existed?

A confidential relationship is characterized as unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties, one of whom has superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent the interests of the other. Some relationships are considered confidential as a matter of law, i.e., attorney-client, guardian-ward, and physician-patient, to name a few, while others will be deemed confidential as a matter of fact, based upon the details of the relationship, i.e., when one person is dependent on, and subject to the control of, another (see Matter of Satterlee, 281 AD 251 [1st Dept 1953]).

In a probate contest, it always is the burden of the objectant to prove that someone perpetrated undue influence upon the testator by establishing motive, opportunity, and the actual exercise of that undue influence (Matter of Walther, 6 NY2d 49, 55 [1959]; see Matter of Ryan, 34 AD3d 212, 213-14 [1st Dept 2006]).  However, where it is established that the decedent was in a confidential relationship with the alleged influencer, and there were other “suspicious circumstances” present (such as the alleged influencer having retained the attorney-draftsman for the decedent, or having accompanied the decedent to the will execution, for example) an inference of undue influence arises.  That inference requires the person in the confidential relationship to explain the circumstances surrounding the relationship between him and the decedent, and to establish by clear and convincing evidence that the subject bequest was fair and voluntary. (see Matter of Neenan, 35 AD3d 475, 476 [2d Dept 2006]; Matter of Bartel, 214 AD2d 476 [1st Dept 1995]).

As with most aspects of the law, there is an exception. Where the person in the confidential relationship also shared a close family relationship with the decedent, no inference of undue inference arises, and therefore, no explanation of a bequest in favor of that person will be required (see Matter of Walther, 6 NY2d 49 [1959]; Matter of Zirinsky, 10 Misc 3d 1052[A] [Sur Ct, Nassau County 2005]). This is generally because “a sense of family duty is inexplicably intertwined in this relationship” (Matter of Zirinsky, 10 Misc 3d at *8-9).  The exception exists despite the presence of “suspicious circumstances.”  Unsurprisingly, this often leads to questions about what degree of family relationship is close enough to negate the inference.

It must be noted that the inference of undue influence that may arise as a result of a confidential relationship should not be confused with shifting the burden of proof from the objectant (see Matter of Neenan, 35 AD3d 475 [2d Dept 2006]).  The burden of proving undue influence in the context of a will contest never shifts (see Matter of Bach, 133 AD2d 455, 456 [2d Dept 1987] quoting Matter of Collins, 124 AD2d 48, 54 [4th Dept 1987]).  The inference just makes it a little bit easier for an objectant to satisfy that burden, and ultimately succeed in his or her case.

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.

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.

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.

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.



Continuing the discussion of tax considerations in settling probate contests, the following additonal issues should be considered.

Marital Deduction

In determining the taxable estate, a deduction is allowed for the value of property which “passes” from the decedent to his surviving spouse.

If, as a result of a controversy involving the decedent’s will, or involving any bequest or devise thereunder, the surviving spouse assigns or surrenders a property interest in settlement of the controversy, the interest so assigned or surrendered will not be considered to have passed from the decedent to the surviving spouse and, so, will not qualify for the marital deduction.

Conversely, if a property interest is assigned or surrendered to the surviving spouse, the interest will be considered as having passed from the decedent to the spouse and, so, may qualify for the marital deduction, but only if the assignment or surrender was a bona fide recognition of the rights of the surviving spouse in the decedent’s estate that are enforceable under state law, and it meets the other requirements for the marital deduction (for example, the QTIP requirements for a transfer in trust). Thus, a transfer to a surviving spouse may qualify if it is made in settlement of her claim arising under an alleged failure by the estate to fulfill the decedent’s obligations under a prenuptial agreement; in that case, the transfer represents a bona fide settlement of enforceable rights. Such a bona fide recognition is presumed where the transfer is pursuant to a decision of a local court rendered upon the merits in an adversarial proceeding following a genuine contest. 

Charitable Deduction


In general, a deduction is permitted for federal estate tax purposes for bequests or other transfers to or for a charitable purpose. In determining whether an interest in property has passed from a decedent to a charity, the rules relating to marital bequests, described above, are applicable.


Thus, an amount distributed from an estate to a charity pursuant to a settlement agreement following a bona fide will contest is deemed to have passed directly to the charity from the decedent, and is eligible for a charitable deduction where the charity had a recognizable and enforceable right to a portion of the estate. However, the amount of the deduction cannot be greater than the value of what the charity would have received under the original will if it had litigated its claim to conclusion.


If a charitable organization assigns or surrenders a part of a transfer to it pursuant to a compromise agreement in settlement of a controversy, the amount so given up is not deductible as a transfer to that charitable organization. Thus, an estate which settles a will contest from funds in a residuary charitable bequest is required to pay tax on the settlement amount.


Gift and Income Taxes


The settlement of a will contest may involve several transfers of property, either between the estate and a beneficiary or claimant, on the one hand, or between beneficiaries or claimants, on the other. While each of these transfers may have certain estate tax consequences, as described above, the various parties must also consider the possible gift tax and income tax consequences.


In general, it is unlikely that a transfer made pursuant to the settlement of a will contest will be treated as a taxable gift if it is the product of a bona fide, arm’s-length transaction that is free of donative intent. Where that is not the case – as where two beneficiaries agree to “revise” the decedent’s will as it concerns dispositions of properties to themselves ‑ the readjustment of their property interests may be deemed a taxable gift.


In light of the facts and circumstances, a payment by the estate to a claimant may be treated, under the terms of a settlement, as taxable compensation for services rendered to the decedent, rather than as a non-taxable bequest.


Alternatively, the payment (or distribution) to a beneficiary may result in taxable income to the beneficiary if the estate has distributable net income.


It is also possible that beneficiaries who transfer or exchange property, as part of a settlement, will be treated as having sold such property, thereby realizing taxable gain (some of which may be treated as ordinary income, depending upon the asset).


If the property is an interest in a pass-through entity, such as an S corporation or a partnership, the transfer of such an interest will effect a change in its ownership (presumably effective from the date of the decedent’s death) which may necessitate the amendment of the returns of both the entity and the owners. This, in turn, may require additional economic outlays among the parties in order to restore any benefits lost (including distributions), or to indemnify any losses incurred by any of the parties.


Finally, where the estate holds items of income in respect of a decedent (“IRD”), such as retirement funds, it may behoove the estate to consider distributing such items to a charitable organization in settlement of the organization’s claim to a share of the decedent’s assets; in this way, the estate and its non-charitable beneficiaries may avoid the income tax thereon. 




The foregoing discussion highlights some of the tax considerations that are attendant to the settlement of a will contest. The manner in which each of these is addressed can have a significant impact on the net economic results realized by the parties to the settlement. It is imperative that the parties and their advisors be aware of the tax implications of their actions throughout the will contest, and especially during the negotiation of the settlement. In this way, the parties may better understand their true economic goals and costs, and their advisors may better manage their client’s expectations.

The period following someone’s death can be an emotional time. Unfortunately, the period of administration of the decedent’s estate can be just as emotional, though for different reasons. As the intended disposition of the decedent’s assets becomes “public,” the estate’s beneficiaries, and others, may challenge such disposition. The manner in which these challenges are resolved can have significant tax and economic consequences for the decedent’s estate.

Estate Tax

The estate tax is imposed upon the transfer of the assets comprising a decedent’s estate. The taxable estate is determined by subtracting from the value of the gross estate certain deductions authorized by the Internal Revenue Code. Under various conditions and limitations, deductions are allowable for administration expenses, charitable transfers, and transfers to a surviving spouse. Once the taxable estate has been ascertained, the estate tax rates are applied to arrive at the gross estate tax (before authorized credits).


In theory, the process of compiling the necessary information for determining the tax is straightforward. In practice, however, it can become challenging. The fiduciary must: identify and “collect” the decedent’s assets; determine the decedent’s outstanding liabilities; and dispose of the decedent’s estate.


The starting point for directing the disposition of the decedent’s assets, including the identification of deductible transfers, is the decedent’s last will or revocable trust. These instruments may provide for an outright transfer of property to the decedent’s spouse or a charity. In some cases, they will grant the fiduciary authority to select a charitable recipient. Rather than an outright transfer, the instrument may create a split-interest trust for the benefit of the spouse or a charity, and certain non-marital and non-charitable beneficiaries (usually from the decedent’s family).


The Contest

What happens, however, when the validity of the will or trust, or of the dispositions of property provided therein, are challenged? The fiduciary will certainly incur additional legal, accounting and other fees and expenses in defending the instrument. As a result of the legal proceedings, the disposition of the decedent’s assets may change – either by court decision or through a settlement by the parties – and, consequently, the value of the taxable estate. For example, it may be determined that an asset does not belong to the estate, or that a disposition under the will should not have been made to a specific charity. 


These determinations have estate tax and other tax consequences of which the fiduciary should be aware because they impact the economic result of the settlement. Frequently, however, not enough attention is paid to the tax treatment of the settlement and, consequently, the economic cost may become more expensive than it otherwise could have been.


Estate Tax Return and Payment

The timing of the will contest raises a number of tax considerations. In general, the estate tax return must be filed, and the estate tax paid, within nine months after the decedent’s date of death. If a timely extension application is made, the estate will have an additional six months to file the return. Extensions of time to pay the tax are granted less frequently, and require a showing of good cause.


In the event the will contest cannot be resolved before the due date for the return, the fiduciary should disclose the nature of the dispute on the return, since the resolution thereof will likely affect the amount of estate tax owed by the estate. Similarly, the fiduciary will have to determine how much estate tax to remit while the contest is pending. This necessitates consideration of the merits of the claims and of the expected litigation costs. In the case of an “overpayment,” the fiduciary must be mindful of the possibility of claiming a refund. If it appears that the litigation will continue beyond the limitation period for a refund, the fiduciary should consider filing timely a protective refund claim.  


Will the IRS respect the Settlement?

Whether the IRS will respect the settlement is an issue characterized by the intersection of state property law and federal tax law.


The determination of the federal estate tax is based upon the respective property rights of the decedent (what assets did he own at his death), of his creditors (what liabilities do the decedent and/or his estate owe), and of the beneficiaries of his estate (to whom do the decedent’s assets pass after the satisfaction of these liabilities). These various property rights arise under state law. In the case of a will contest, the adversarial nature of the proceeding is an important factor in determining the federal tax consequences of the settlement, though it may not be determinative; the IRS is generally free to review the applicable state law for the purpose of determining whether the terms of the settlement are, in fact, consistent with the property rights of the parties under such state law. It is important to bear in mind that the IRS may not be bound by a settlement agreement.


Litigation-Related Expenses

Administration expenses are those that are actually and necessarily incurred in the administration of the decedent’s estate; for example, for the collection of assets, payment of debts, and distribution of property. These may include legal fees incurred by the fiduciary, which are usually deductible for estate tax purposes. However, expenditures that are not essential to the settlement of the estate, but that are incurred for the individual benefit of the decedent’s heirs, may not be taken as deductions. For the expenditure to be allowable as an administration expense, it must have benefited the estate as a whole, as contrasted with the personal benefit of a beneficiary. This distinction is often difficult to make.


A settlement may establish the amount of a claim or expense for tax purposes, provided that the expenditure is allowable under local law, the settlement resolves a bona fide issue in a genuine contest, and it is the product of arm’s-length negotiations by parties having adverse interests with respect to the claim or expense. No deduction will be allowed for amounts paid in settlement of an unenforceable claim. A consent decree should be accepted as fixing a claim when the consent was a bona fide recognition of the validity of the claim – not a mere “cloak” for a gift to a family member – and was accepted by the court as satisfactory evidence upon the merits. However, if a local court does not adjudicate the merits of a claim, its decision as to its deductibility will not necessarily be accepted by the IRS.


The foregoing assumes that the settlement payment represents an expense. A review of the underlying claim may indicate otherwise. For example, if a payment is made by the estate to someone claiming a share of the estate as a beneficiary, it is likely that the payment will not be deductible as an expense for estate tax purposes (though it may qualify for the marital or charitable deduction).

In probate proceedings involving the issue of testamentary capacity, parties frequently present testimony at trial from an expert psychiatrist.  It is often the case that that psychiatrist never saw or treated the testator, and develops his or her expert opinion solely by reviewing various documents, including the testator’s medical records.  

This expert psychiatric testimony is admissible, but courts have routinely and consistently held that it is afforded very little weight, if any, and is unreliable.  This appears to be an “equal-opportunity” standard. In other words, this type of testimony is given little weight regardless of which party relies on it. For example, in Matter of Swain, 125 AD2d 574 (2d Dept 1986), the objectant’s expert psychiatrist testified that based solely on an examination of the medical records, which notably did not include the month when the will was executed, the testator was so impaired by a stroke that she could not have known the nature and extent of her assets or the natural objects of her bounty. The jury returned a verdict denying the will to probate on the grounds, inter alia, that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. The Second Department reversed, finding that the psychiatrist’s testimony was purely speculative, contradicted by the testimony of the testator’s treating physician, and was entitled to no weight. Thus, it concluded that the objectant failed to rebut evidence that the testator possessed testamentary capacity.


In Matter of Slade, 106 AD2d 914 (4th Dept 1984), however, the proponent of the will relied on a psychiatrist’s testimony that the testator possessed testamentary capacity.   That witness had never examined the testator, nor discussed her condition with any treating physicians. He simply reviewed her medical records. At the close of the proponent’s case, the objectant’s moved for a directed verdict pursuant to CPLR § 4404, which the court granted on the issue of lack of testamentary capacity, because the proponent failed to meet his burden. Affirming that decision, the Fourth Department stated that “such testimony is the weakest and most unreliable kind of evidence,” and noted that it contradicted the facts—which must prevail.

Most estate attorneys are familiar with the concept of the so-called “slayer rule” whereby a person responsible for the murder of an individual cannot benefit from the murdered individual’s estate. This rule has its genesis in the Court of Appeals decision of Riggs v Palmer, in which the Court stated “[n]o one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime” (Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506, 511 [1889]).

Though this equitable rule would appear to be relatively unambiguous in application, questions of its interpretation arise from time to time in the Surrogate’s Courts. Previous entries on this blog have discussed the Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court’s decision to expand the rule by barring a murderer from benefitting not only from his victim’s estate but also the estate of a post-deceased legatee of the victim. 

In an upcoming Nassau County Surrogate’s Court hearing, Surrogate McCarty, on the other hand, will be tasked with assessing the possible boundaries of the slayer rule vis a vis the insanity defense. The hearing, scheduled for August 15, 2013, concerns the case of Leatrice Brewer who in 2008 drowned her three children in a bathtub (see Newsday July 12, 2013). Ms. Brewer admitted to killing her children and in 2010 entered a plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” in her criminal proceeding. Thereafter, Innocent Demesyeux, the father of two of the deceased children, received limited letters of administration concerning his children’s estates and sued Nassau County for wrongful death. The suit settled for $250,000 and the father petitioned the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court to compromise the wrongful death action and settle his account. As part of his petition, Mr. Demesyeux has requested that Ms. Brewer be held to have forfeited any interest in her children’s estates by virtue of the slayer rule. The hearing this month will determine this request. 

In a recent pre-hearing decision concerning access to Ms. Brewer’s court files, Surrogate McCarty addressed and previewed some of the issues that will likely be argued in the upcoming hearing (see Matter of Demesyeux, 350391/A, NYLJ 1202598464881, at *1 [Sur Ct, Nassau County, Decided March 29, 2013]). In order to respond to Mr. Demesyeux’s petition, the guardian ad litem assigned to represent Ms. Brewer’s interests in the proceeding attempted to view Ms. Brewer’s Family Court and criminal proceeding records but was told such records were sealed. The guardian ad litem thereafter filed a report in Surrogate’s Court seeking a court-order to unseal the records.

In his decision concerning the guardian ad litem’s request, Surrogate McCarty surveyed the history of the slayer rule under Riggs and its progeny noting that, though there is no express statutory statement of the rule, “numerous cases since Riggs v. Palmer have reaffirmed the applicability of the common-law general principle that one should not be permitted to profit by taking the life of another and, in particular, that one who feloniously murders shall not be entitled to share in his victim’s estate” (Matter of Demesyeux at 2). Conversely, the Surrogate noted that application of the rule is not always straightforward and “there is some authority that if the killing was unintentional or accidental, the rule will not be applied” (id. at 3). For instance, the Surrogate cited Matter of Eckhardt (184 Misc 748 [Sur Ct, Orange County 1945]) concerning a somnambulist who killed her husband but was found not to have known the nature and quality of her act.

In connection with the guardian ad litem’s request to view Ms. Brewer’s criminal court files, the Surrogate considered the application of CPL §160.50, which requires that records be sealed if a criminal action is terminated in favor of the accused, ostensibly to spare the accused the social stigma of a criminal prosecution. The question, according to the Surrogate, is whether a termination by reason of an insanity plea can be construed as ‘favorable’ to the accused. Surrogate McCarty quoted the decision of Matter of Anonymous (174 Misc 2d 333 [Sup Ct, Kings County 1997]), which described persons acquitted of a crime via the insanity defense as occupying a special class. Such persons have been proven or have admitted to performance of criminal acts that would ordinarily be subject to punishment. Nevertheless, due to “society’s compassionate belief” that persons with mental defects not be criminally punished, they are spared the penalization they would otherwise justifiably receive. Then again, because they have undisputedly committed criminal acts and are dangers to society, such persons, while spared incarceration, are held in state custody. Balancing the policy considerations of the insanity defense, the court in Anonymous ruled that persons acquitted by reason of an insanity defense have not had their case terminated in their favor. Surrogate McCarty agreed, opining that Ms. Brewer’s criminal records should not be sealed.

No doubt, the upcoming hearing will involve a similar balancing of the equities and policies behind the slayer rule against those behind the insanity defense. Based upon the cases quoted by the Surrogate in Matter of Demesyeux, it appears that the parties will focus on whether or not Ms. Brewer acted with intent and knew the nature of her act. I do not envy the difficult decision Surrogate McCarty will have to make in looking beyond the strong emotional underpinnings of this case. 

Can a surviving spouse be guilty of abandonment, consequently forfeiting the presumptive right to administer her deceased spouse’s estate, if she was effectively in a “marriage of convenience”? In her recent decision in Estate of Shoichiro Hama, 2009-4505 NYLJ 1202579753326, at *1 (Sur Ct, New York County, Decided November 26, 2012) former New York County Surrogate Glen decided in the affirmative. In considering the issue of abandonment, the Surrogate also called for a general re-examination of the concept of a ‘surviving spouse’ as it pertains to intestate succession and other spousal rights under the EPTL.

The problematic facts of the case may have spurred Surrogate Glen’s more general contemplations. It is relatively clear from the court’s decision that the decedent married the spouse primarily for tax reasons and, during the marriage, the spouse lived with another man, publicly holding herself out to be married to this second man, with the decedent’s knowledge and consent.

Shoichiro Hama, the decedent, owned a condominium apartment in Manhattan and sought to sell it. In June 2006, he consulted his accountant who informed the decedent that he would incur significant capital gains taxes on the sale. When the decedent inquired how he could mitigate these taxes, the accountant joked that he could get married. A few weeks following this discussion, on July 7, 2006, the decedent married Yuko Machida, an employee of his company. Two months thereafter, on September 6, 2006, the decedent sold his apartment. In November 2006, the decedent told his accountant that he wished to obtain a divorce and the accountant advised against it. The decedent asked how long the accountant recommended he stay married to preserve his tax benefit, and the accountant advised two years.

In 2007, the decedent moved to Japan and Machida also moved to Japan, but to live with another man, Travis Klose, with whom she had maintained a relationship prior to her marriage to the decedent. Facing parental stigma for living with a man with whom she was not married, Machida registered in Japan as being married to Klose. The decedent was aware of this and, in fact, assisted in Machida’s registration as Klose’s wife by signing and affixing his personal seal to their marriage certificate, as a witness.

In August 2009, the decedent inquired of his accountant whether he could then divorce Machida. As the decedent was contemplating the sale of another apartment in Manhattan, the accountant advised him that he should remain married. The decedent subsequently died intestate on September 4, 2009. Thereafter, Machida petitioned for issuance of letters of administration, via a designee, and the decedent’s parents cross petitioned for the same, via a designee. Temporary Letters of Administration issued to Machida’s designee. The designee of the decedent’s parents filed a motion for, among other things, summary judgment revoking Machida’s designee’s letters, and dismissing Machida’s administration petition, based on a claim of spousal abandonment.

EPTL 5-1.2 (a)(5) provides that a husband or wife is disqualified as a surviving spouse under the EPTL, for purposes of intestate distribution, among other things, if it is established that the husband or wife abandoned the deceased spouse and such abandonment continued until the time of death. Former Surrogate Glen noted that while the EPTL contains no definition of abandonment, it is generally and historically understood that the concept was imported from the Domestic Relations Law, such that if a spouse would have been entitled to a decree of divorce based on the grounds of abandonment, such spouse would be subject to a viable claim of abandonment under the EPTL.

The long-standing Court of Appeals decision in Matter of Maiden (284 NY 429 [1940]), holds that to constitute abandonment, a spouse’s departure from the marital home must be both “unjustified and without the consent of the other spouse” (id. at 432). As Surrogate Glen noted, the decedent’s participation in Machida’s ‘marriage’ to Klose in Japan was “the very opposite of ‘lack of consent’” and the decedent’s parents’ claim of abandonment would fail under this test (Estate of Shoichiro Hama at *7).

Nevertheless, Surrogate Glen based her decision on another case, Matter of Oswald (43 Misc 2d 774 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 1964], affd 24 AD2d 465 [2d Dept 1965], affd 17 NY2d 447 [1965]). In that case, the parties allegedly entered into a common law marriage, but later exchanged mutual releases and each married another. The Surrogate found abandonment, quoting Matter of Bingham (178 Misc 801 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1942], affd 265 AD 463 [2d Dept 1943], rearg denied and lv denied 266 AD 669 [2d Dept 1943]), that “[t]he court knows of no more convincing evidence of abandonment than the public ceremonial remarriage of the petitioner to another woman in the lifetime of the decedent and his cohabitation with such woman as husband and wife” (id. at 805). The Appellate Division affirmed Oswald “on the opinion of the Surrogate” and the Court of Appeals affirmed without decision. Thus, it is not clear whether public remarriage, valid or not, qualifies as abandonment and stands as an exception to the Maiden requirement that abandonment be without consent. Based on the ambiguity created by the Court of Appeals’ affirmation of Oswald, in seeming conflict with its earlier rule in Maiden, Surrogate Glen ultimately held for the decedent’s parents and found abandonment by Machida.

This holding lead Surrogate Glen to question general policy issues regarding surviving spouses. First and foremost, Surrogate Glen noted that New York has done away with the fault-based divorce system from which the concept of abandonment first sprung. She then traced the historical evolution and reappraisals of spousal relationships under New York’s divorce law. One of the primary factors in this evolution, she noted, has been the shift in the understanding of marriage from being a sacred bond for life to being an economic partnership. She called for a similar reappraisal in estate law.

The concept of a surviving spouse, according to the Surrogate, was originally used as a proxy for the person closest to and/or most dependent on the deceased spouse, that is, the natural object of the deceased spouse’s bounty. Thus a surviving spouse has priority to administer an estate, priority of intestate distribution, and the right to elect against an estate. But what of spouses who remain married but live apart for years? What of married partners who develop fulfilling and committed relationships with other persons, without formally divorcing their spouse? Who is the more natural object of bounty in this case? According to Surrogate Glen, the current estate concept of a surviving spouse “no longer reflects reality, at least for a large number of people.” She concluded that “[c]hanging understandings of what constitutes family, demographic shifts, and alterations in economic dependence strongly suggest the need both to reappraise the spousal disqualification statute and the interests it serves: administration, intestacy and spousal election. One may hope that the bar and the legislature will hear and heed this call” (Estate of Shoichiro Hama at *16-*17).

In light of the radically changing societal and legal conceptions of marriage, does the current standard of spousal abandonment, which is itself grounded in a fault-based divorce system that, for the most part, no longer exists, continue to serve the purposes for which it was intended or the premises on which it was based? It remains to be seen whether the legislature will consider or address Surrogate Glen’s thought-provoking questions.