While most decisions rendered by the Surrogate’s Court result from an affirmative request for relief, occasionally the court will address an issue on its own motion when justice or the exercise of its inherent or statutory power requires. One of the better known instances in which the Surrogate’s Court undertook this role was Stortecky v. Mazzone, 85 NY2d 518 (1995), a case that addressed the court’s inherent authority to fix and determine legal fees. This post examines two recent opinions wherein the Surrogate’s Court, again, acted on its own initiative to achieve what it considered the proper result.

SCPA 1408 and the Duty to Admit a Valid Will to Probate

In In re Friedman, NYLJ, Mar. 13, 2017, at 22, the Surrogate’s Court, New York County, was confronted with two petitions requesting the admission to probate of a purported will of the decedent, dated April 5, 2011. The initial petition was filed by the nominated executor under the instrument and objections to probate were filed by the decedent’s daughter. Thereafter, the daughter withdrew her objections to probate, and filed a cross-petition for probate requesting that she, and not the nominated executor, be appointed fiduciary.

Despite the absence of objections to probate, the court noted several deficiencies on the face of the instrument, as well as evidence in the record that created “serious” concerns regarding its execution and the decedent’s testamentary capacity. More specifically, the court observed that the instrument arguably failed to dispose of any testamentary property, that the decedent’s name was misspelled, and that while the instrument contained a detailed listing of over 30 stock holdings and accounts, a year before the execution date, the decedent had been found by an examining psychiatrist to have cognitive limitations, and was unaware of his income.

In view thereof, and in accord with the provisions of SCPA 1408(1), the court scheduled a hearing in order to satisfy itself as to the genuineness of the propounded will and the validity of its execution. Petitioner, who was the only witness to testify, stated that the decedent drafted and typed the instrument, and later executed the document, without the supervision of an attorney, in the presence of two of petitioner’s friends. No explanation was given regarding the discrepancies in the instrument, or to mitigate the court’s concerns about the decedent’s mental capacity. Moreover, no explanation was provided as to the reference in the instrument to a date and event that occurred after the date of its execution, and the existence of the pre-typed names and addresses of the witnesses, despite petitioner’s contention that the decedent had never met them prior to the will being signed.

Accordingly, based on the foregoing, and the record as a whole, the court held that it was not satisfied that the will was valid, and denied the petition and cross-petition for its probate.

Surcharge of Fiduciary, Sua Sponte

Because a fiduciary is presumptively entitled to statutory commissions, an objectant in a contested accounting proceeding generally has the burden of demonstrating that fiduciary commissions should be denied. In In re Colt, NYLJ, Apr. 14, 2017, at 22 (Sur. Ct. New York County), the court seemingly deviated from this rule when it exercised its authority to review sua sponte the fiduciary’s commissions as executor and trustee.

Before the court were contested accountings of the fiduciary as executor of the decedent’s estate and successor trustee of a revocable trust created by the decedent in 2006. Following the dismissal of certain objections and the withdrawal of others, the court held a hearing on the remaining issue of the legal fees payable to the fiduciary’s counsel. The record at the hearing revealed that much of the work performed by counsel related to conflicting claims to the assets of the estate and trust. More specifically, it appeared that in 2004, the decedent had executed a pour over will and revocable trust into which he transferred his condominium and brokerage account. Two years later, he executed the subject 2006 trust, as well as a new will, which, again, contained a direction that his residuary estate pour over into the trust. The 2004 trust and 2006 trust essentially had the same legatees, however, the beneficiaries of the decedent’s residuary estate differed.

Significantly, the draftsperson of both wills and trusts was the fiduciary, who was the decedent’s estate planning attorney. Of equal note was the fiduciary’s acknowledgment that the decedent intended his assets to pass pursuant to the 2006 trust, and his admission that he failed to have the decedent revoke the 2004 trust and fund the 2006 trust with the assets with which the 2006 trust had been funded. Although the controversy regarding the rightful owners of these assets was settled, the court found that the decedent’s estate had a claim against the fiduciary for the legal fees incurred to resolve the trust issues that were created from his failure to properly advise the decedent. Indeed, regardless of whether the statute of limitations on any claim for malpractice had expired, or whether fiduciary had been shielded from claims based upon the privity doctrine, the court concluded that the fiduciary’s duty as executor required that he make the estate whole for the legal fees resulting from his negligence. His failure to fulfill this duty was exacerbated by his affirmative approval of the considerable legal fees incurred, which he apparently made no attempts to control.

In view thereof, the court held that the fiduciary had demonstrated a gross neglect of his duty and a substantial disregard of the rights of the beneficiaries warranting a denial of his commissions both as executor and trustee.

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.