Estate litigation oftentimes arises when parents favor one or more of their children over others in their estate plans. Fortunately, at least for the parents, they typically do not have to deal with the issues involved in the litigation, as they are deceased by the time that it arises. As the Second Department’s decision in Sharrow v. Sheridan demonstrates, however, disfavored children do not always wait for their parents to pass before commencing litigation concerning the parents’ assets. Indeed, some disfavored children have gone so far as to sue their parents and siblings as “potential heirs” of the parents’ estates. This blog entry explains why such a strategy will prove unsuccessful.

In Sharrow, the plaintiff commenced an action against his mother and his sister, seeking to impose a constructive trust on certain assets that the mother transferred to the sister (see Sharrow v. Sheridan, 91 AD3d 940, 940-41 [2d Dept 2012]). The plaintiff alleged that a constructive trust was warranted because the sister exercised duress and undue influence on the ailing mother in pressuring her to transfer the assets to the sister (see id.). When the mother and sister moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint, the plaintiff asserted that he had standing to seek a constructive trust over the assets formerly belonging to his mother as a “potential heir” of her estate (see id.).

The Supreme Court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss and the Appellate Division affirmed (see id.). In affirming, the Second Department found that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek to impose a constructive trust on the assets that his mother transferred to his sister (see id.). As the court explained, for as long as she was alive, the mother had “the absolute right to change her intentions regarding the distribution of her assets” (see id.). Accordingly, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s interest as a “potential heir” of his mother’s estate was a “potential, speculative interest” that did not vest him with standing to prosecute a constructive trust claim concerning his mother’s former assets (see id.).

Of course, Sharrow is not the only case in which a child sought to void an inter vivos transfer made by a parent as a potential heir of the parent’s estate. In Schneider v. David, the plaintiff commenced an action to impose a constructive trust on real property that her mother transferred to her brother (see Schneider v. David, 169 AD2d 506, 506-08 [1st Dept 1991]). Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that her brother had fraudulently induced their elderly mother to convey the properly to him by telling the mother that the deed she signed only permitted him to manage the property while she was out-of-state (see id.). The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing – with his mother’s support – that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek a constructive trust (see id.).

Although the Supreme Court denied the defendant’s motion, the First Department reversed (see id.). The Appellate Division reasoned that the plaintiff was not a party to her mother’s conveyance of the property and could not void it simply because she considered herself to be an heir of her living mother’s estate (see id.). In short, the plaintiff’s self-serving description of herself as a potential heir of her mother’s estate did not cloak her with standing to sue or exercise rights on her mother’s behalf (see id.).

There are several lessons to take away from Sharrow and Schneider, the most obvious of which is for children to respect the wishes of their parents as those wishes relate to the parents’ assets during life. Putting the obvious aside, however, disfavored children and their attorneys should take note of the well-reasoned legal principle that, as “potential heirs” of their parents’ estates, they lack standing to take legal action concerning their parents’ assets. During their lives, the assets belong to the parents and are subject to the parents’ absolute right to dispose of their property as they wish.

 

In a recent decision in the Matter of Lally, the Schenectady County Surrogate’s Court decided an issue of standing on a set of particularly interesting facts.

The case involved a charitable trust agreement that directed that “St. Clare’s Hospital of Schenectady, New York Foundation Inc. Schenectady, New York” (along with various other charitable beneficiaries) receive a portion of the remainder of the subject trusts. 

According to the petitioner, St. Clare’s Hospital of Schenectady, N.Y. Foundation, Inc. (the “Foundation”) is a not-for-profit corporation established to support and assist St. Clare’s Hospital of Schenectady (the “Hospital”) in expanding and developing its services to the community. However, in 2008, the New York State “Berger Commission” mandated that the Hospital close its doors. Allegedly, the commission required the Hospital to surrender its license to operate and to execute an Asset Transfer Agreement with Ellis Hospital (“Ellis”), which assumed the sole responsibility of providing hospital and other healthcare services previously provided by the Hospital, and is the sole remaining hospital in Schenectady County. While the Foundation remains in existence as a not-for-profit corporation, and holds significant assets, it no longer supports or assists the inoperative Hospital. 

          

The corporate trustee of the subject trusts, Trustco Bank, brought a cy pres proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court, to determine whether the Hospital’s relinquishment of its license to operate renders the administration of the subject trusts according to their literal terms impractical or impossible. Ellis filed a Notice of Appearance in the proceeding. The Foundation moved to “reject” the Notice of Appearance, in essence asking that the court rule that Ellis had no standing to participate in the proceeding. The Attorney General filed papers in support of the Foundation’s motion, and Ellis, naturally, opposed it. The trustee took no position.

 

By way of background, courts generally entertain cy pres proceedings when the intended recipients of a charitable donation can no longer be identified. In such cases, courts are authorized to release funds for purposes as close as possible to the wishes of the donors. As one court explained,

 

the cy pres doctrine takes its name from the Norman French expression, cy pres comme possible, which means “as near as possible.”  The doctrine originated to save testamentary charitable gifts that would otherwise fail.  Under cy pres, if the testator had a general charitable intent, the court will look for an alternate recipient that will best serve the gift’s original purpose.

                                (Airline Ticket Comm’n. Antitrust Litig. Travel Network, Ltd. v United Air Lines,

                                Inc., 307 F3d 679, 682 [8th Cir 2002]).

 

The court first addressed — and rejected — various procedural arguments. First, it rejected the Attorney General’s argument that it was premature to determine Ellis’ standing prior to the court deciding whether it would exercise its cy pres power in the first place. Second, it rejected the argument that the court should not reach the issue of standing because Ellis neither initiated the proceeding nor was suing to enforce its claim to the subject charitable gift. Having rejected those procedural arguments, the court went on to address the merits of the motion, i.e., the issue of Ellis’ standing to participate in the proceeding.

 

The parties agreed that the court should apply the standing rule enunciated by the Court of Appeals in Alco Gravure v. The Knapp Foundation, 64 NY2d 458 (1985). That case was a declaratory judgment action brought by corporate plaintiffs whose employees were the intended beneficiaries of a charitable foundation.  In deciding the issue of the plaintiffs’ standing to maintain the action, the Court held that one who is merely a possible beneficiary of a charitable trust, or a member of a class of possible beneficiaries, is not entitled to sue for enforcement of the trust. Rather, the Attorney General has the statutory power and duty to represent the beneficiaries of any disposition for charitable purposes. However, the Court also recognized an exception to the general rule, where a particular group of people has a special interest in funds held for a charitable purpose, as when they are entitled to a preference in the distribution of such funds and the class of potential beneficiaries is sharply defined and limited in number (see id. at 465).

 

The Surrogate noted that the facts in Alco Gravure differed from the facts of the case before it because, first, Alco Gravure was not a cy pres proceeding; second, the plaintiffs in Alco Gravure were members of a named class of beneficiaries (i.e., persons employed by the defendant corporation); and, third, the issue in Alco Gravure pertained to the plaintiffs’ standing to sue, not standing to appear and participate as an intervenor as in this case. Nevertheless, the court stated that it would apply the rules enunciated in Alco Gravure, there being no other authority providing any superior guidance.

 

Applying those rules, the court rejected the argument advanced by the Attorney General and the Foundation that Ellis is merely one of an undefined class of hundreds of potential beneficiaries of a cy pres-directed distribution of the trust, with no preferred status in a case. Instead the court determined that Ellis had a unique, contractual relationship with the Hospital that set it apart from all other potential charitable beneficiaries, and that therefore it was entitled to a preference in the distribution. The court based its determination on the facts regarding the Berger Commission’s mandate and the Asset Transfer Agreement between the Hospital and Ellis, by which Ellis acquired the Hospital’s assets and assumed its hospital services.

 

However, the court was careful to emphasize that its ruling should not be interpreted as meaning that in the event it determined to exercise its cy pres power, Ellis would be the likely recipient of the subject charitable disposition.  The court’s ruling only provided Ellis with the status of an interested party, with the right to file a responsive pleading, participate in discovery, make motions, and participate during the trial.

 

Although the importance of the court’s decision in Matter of Lally might not extend much further than the specific facts of that case, it certainly provides further authority for the proposition that the Surrogate’s Courts are, first and foremost, courts of equity.