In the past, New York Courts have demonstrated a willingness to apply the theory of promissory estoppel, to overcome the legal requirements of the Statute of Frauds. The Restatement (Second) of Contract, Section 139, endorses this principle, providing:

“A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person and which does induce the action or forbearance is enforceable notwithstanding the Statute of Frauds if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise”

However, a recent decision from the New York Court of Appeals, limited the purview of applying the theory to overcome the statutory requirements of the Statute of Frauds.

In the Matter of Hennel, the Court of Appeals rendered a decision, reversing an order of the Appellate Division, holding that Petitioners’ claim against the decedent’s estate seeking to enforce an oral promise was barred by the Statute of Frauds. In overturning the Appellate Division, the Court held that the most important factor in overcoming the Statute of Frauds is whether the resulting injustice is in fact unconscionable.

In Hennel, the decedent’s grandsons allegedly reached an oral agreement with the decedent, whereby the parties agreed that the grandsons would ultimately acquire ownership of a parcel of real property in exchange for assuming all management and maintenance duties of the property. The Petitioners further asserted that the parties reach an agreement whereby the mortgage on the property would be satisfied from the estate’s assets.

To effectuate the oral bargain, Petitioners and decedent executed a warranty deed in which decedent granted ownership of the property to Petitioners. At the same meeting, the decedent executed a will which contained terms supporting the alleged oral agreement – namely that any mortgage in existence at the time of the decedent’s death would be paid off from the assets of the decedent’s estate. Following the meeting, the Petitioners assumed all management and maintenance duties in accordance with the agreement with decedent. However, in 2008, the decedent executed a new will, revoking all prior wills and codicils, which omitted all provisions concerning the satisfaction of the mortgage.

Following the decedent’s death, the Petitioners commenced a proceeding, pursuant to SCPA 1809, seeking to determine the validity of their claim against decedent’s estate.   The Respondent objected, asserting that the claim was barred by the Statute of Frauds. However, the Surrogate’s Court ordered the estate to pay off the mortgage and satisfy the claim, reasoning that the claim fell “squarely within that limited class of cases where promissory estoppel should be applied to remedy a potential injustice.” The Appellate Division later affirmed the Surrogate Court’s decision.

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning that even assuming the Petitioners were able to satisfy the elements of promissory estoppel, they would not suffer unconscionable injury if the Statute of Frauds were enforced. The Court went on to state:

“The strongly held public policy reflected in New York’s Statute of Frauds would be severely undermined if a party could be estopped from asserting it every time a court found that some unfairness would otherwise result. For this reason, the doctrine of promissory estoppel is properly reserved for that limited class of cases where the circumstances are such as to render it unconscionable to deny the promise upon which the plaintiff has relied”

(Hennel, 2017 WL 2799828 [2017]).

Applying those principals to the facts before it, the Court found the Petitioners’ evidence was insufficient to demonstrate an unconscionable injury to overcome the Statute of Frauds. Importantly, the Petitioners were able to make all mortgage payments entirely from the rental income generated by the property. Moreover, the court noted that the Petitioners had the option of selling the property, satisfying the balance of the mortgage, and claiming the $150,000 of equity remaining in the property.

The Court conceded that the Petitioner’s loss was unfair. However, in overturning the Appellate Court’s decision, the Court reasoned that wherever an oral agreement is rendered void by the statute of frauds, some unfairness will typically result.   The Court concluded that “what is unfair is not always unconscionable.   For these reasons, cases where the party attempting to avoid the statute of frauds will suffer unconscionable injury will be rare” [id.].

Consequently, it is clear that applying the principles of promissory estoppel, to overcome the legal requirements of the Statute of Frauds, is a high standard that places a significant burden on the promisee.   The promisee must demonstrate not merely gross injustice or unfairness but the showing of an unconscionable injury.

The fiduciary who thinks a receipt and release is the answer to all future claims for an accounting and liability may have a surprise in store. Over the past several months, Surrogates have explored the issue of receipts and releases, and have provided insight into just how far they will go to “save the day.” The decision in Matter of Ingraham, NYLJ, June 16, 2017, at p. 28 (Sur. Ct., New York County) is a case in point.

Before the Surrogate’s Court, New York County, was a petition by the successor trustee of two separate inter vivos trusts to compel two former trustees of the trusts to account. One of the trustees, who had been removed by the Grantor, filed his accountings; the other trustee, who had resigned, objected to the petitions relying on language in the trust instruments, which she claimed relieved her of any duty to account, as well as releases executed by the Grantor and the other trustee.

At the time the objectant resigned, the Grantor executed instruments by which the objectant was released from any and all claims related in any way to her role as trustee, with the exception of claims arising from fraud or willful misconduct. The release further acknowledged that the Grantor desired to forego a formal account. The accounting trustee signed a similar release, and assented to any account (former or informal) rendered by the objectant. Further, it appeared that the terms of each trust instrument dispensed with the need for the trustees to file periodic judicial accountings.

The court held that the objectant’s reliance on the releases to insulate her from her duty to account was misplaced, inasmuch as the instruments reserved the releasors’ rights to seek relief for any fraud or willful misconduct. Further, the court rejected any claim by the objectant that the releases relieved her of her duty to account, a responsibility that was incidental to the trustee’s duty and fundamental to any fiduciary relationship. Indeed, the court found that while the release executed by the Grantor may have arguably consisted of a waiver of the Grantor’s right to an accounting, the court found that it did not constitute a clear and unambiguous waiver of an accounting by the other trustee and trust beneficiaries.

Additionally, the court held that the provisions of the trust instruments only exempted the objectant from filing periodic accountings, but did not relate to the final accounting sought by the proceedings. Finally, the court observed that where a former trustee has failed to account within a reasonable time and full releases do not relieve her of the duty to account, the court may sua sponte direct an accounting pursuant to SCPA 2205.

Accordingly, the objectant was directed to account with respect to each of the subject trusts.

Based on the foregoing, counsel should take heed that a release may not, despite its intended purpose, always serve to insure the complete and final discharge of a fiduciary. As Ingraham instructs, a release should, at the very least, be comprehensive in its terms and clear and unambiguous as to the scope of its application, most especially if it is designed to constitute a waiver of an accounting. But of course, it should always be borne in mind that regardless of the language of the instrument, the court may invoke the provisions of SCPA 2205, and direct an accounting on its own motion — if it deems it to be in the best interests of the estate to do so.

One of the most important considerations in creating a trust is selecting the appropriate trustee. Oftentimes this involves determining whether a corporate trustee is appropriate as either the sole trustee or together with one or more individual co-trustees. A corporate trustee’s experience and sophistication in both investment and administrative matters are commonly cited reasons for appointing such a trustee. A corporate trustee may further provide a level of objectivity that may be difficult for family members or other individual trustees to match.

In Matter of Sinzheimer, 2017 NY Slip Op 31379(U) (Sur Ct, New York County 2017), the Court held a corporate co-trustee that had been “removed” pursuant to the terms of the trust agreement was not required to deliver the trust’s assets to the sole individual trustee where the individual defied the instruction in the trust instrument to appoint a successor corporate co-trustee. The perceived objectivity on the part of the removed corporate trustee figured prominently in the Court’s decision sustaining its decision to withhold delivery of trust assets to the individual trustee until a new corporate trustee had been appointed.

The relevant facts in Sinzheimer are as follows. Ronald and Marsha, husband and wife, established an irrevocable trust which provided for income and principal to be paid to Marsha in the discretion of the trustees for her “health, support maintenance and education.” On Marsha’s death, the trust remainder is payable to a further subtrust which terminates after the death of the last surviving issue of the parents of Ronald and Marsha. The remainder is payable to certain named individuals or their estates.

Ronald died in 1998, about a year after the trust was established. Thereafter, an individual trustee resigned and Andrew, the son of the grantors, Ronald and Marsha, was appointed in his place. Before Andrew’s predecessor resigned, he exercised his power to remove the corporate co-trustee (the “Bank”), but no corporate co-trustee was appointed to serve in its place.

Andrew maintained that a successor corporate co-trustee is not required and declined to appoint one. With respect to the issue before the Court as to the Bank’s turnover of trust assets to Andrew, the Court noted, “[t]he issue is consequential because Andrew has announced his intention to exercise his discretion to distribute all principal to Marsha if permitted to serve alone, thereby terminating the Trust” (id. at 2). The Court further noted that after Andrew became a trustee, but before his refusal to appoint a corporate co-trustee, he and his mother, Marsha, requested a discretionary distribution to Marsha of all the assets in the trust. A Bank officer asked for the standard documentation to initiate the discretionary request process, but Andrew and Marsha refused to provide the information.

The Court found it was clear from the trust instrument that the settlors intended that a corporate trustee would serve at all times after Ronald’s death. The authorities on which Andrew relied were distinguished because none involved a direction in the instrument to replace a corporate trustee with another corporate trustee, as was the case here, which, the Court stated, was “a significant difference because the professional management and independence uniquely afforded by a bank could affect a court’s analysis of such a provision” (id. at 5).

The Court next proceeded to dismiss Andrew and Marsha’s claim that the Bank converted the trust assets by not turning them over to Andrew as trustee. The Court found that the Bank never asserted title to the trust account which is an essential element of a claim for conversion. Rather, the issue was the Bank’s right, under these facts and circumstances, to temporarily withhold delivery of the trust assets to Andrew. The record established that the Bank never unequivocally denied that Andrew, as trustee, had a right to the assets, but asked only that he first appoint a corporate co-trustee to serve with him or obtain a court order determining his right to serve alone. The Court held:

Particularly given Andrew’s stated intent to terminate the Trust without regard to the rights of the remainder beneficiaries – a class that does not include himself, a measuring life – the Bank’s position was reasonable. … The Bank’s uncontroverted conduct here was prudent and appropriate in the circumstances, particularly in consideration of its fiduciary duty to the remainder beneficiaries… (id. at 8)

Although the Bank had been purportedly removed pursuant to the terms of the instrument, it, nevertheless, had an ongoing fiduciary duty to the remainder beneficiaries. The Court found the Bank fulfilled that duty by resisting its removal and not turning the trust assets over to the sole individual trustee.

Notably, the Bank’s withholding of the trust assets from Andrew was found prudent notwithstanding that co-fiduciaries have an equal right to custody of an estate fund (Matter of Slensby, 169 Misc. 292, 295 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1938] (“every estate fiduciary, by virtue of his office, is entitled to the custody of the assets of the estate or fund. When there are two or more fiduciaries, each possesses an equal right in this regard …”); see also Matter of Schwarz, 240 AD2d 268, 269 [1st Dept 1997]). The justification for departing from this rule in Sinzheimer was clear. The Bank faced potential exposure to claims from the trust’s remainder beneficiaries if it delivered property to the individual trustee who may later be found to be without the authority to exercise discretion alone, as he said he would by terminating the trust in favor of his mother.

Having a corporate trustee is not appropriate for all trusts. The cost of a corporate trustee’s services is an important factor to consider in determining if one is appropriate. The personal family knowledge possessed by a family member or dear friend of the grantor usually serves as a compelling basis to select such an individual to administer a trust for his or her family. On the other hand, a corporate trustee is less likely to be influenced by emotions, personal agendas, conflicts of interest and bias, all of which can impair the orderly administration of a trust consistent with the grantor’s intentions.

E-mail is seemingly omnipresent. Day in and day out, we use it in our business, social, and personal affairs. Yet, the improvements to the technology associated with e-mail have far outpaced the development of the law concerning our e-mail accounts and the rights that our survivors may have to access those accounts upon our deaths. This post addresses New York’s recently-enacted digital assets legislation, as well as Surrogate Mella’s well-reasoned decision in Matter of Serrano, which appears to be the first reported case to apply that legislation.

In 2016, the New York Legislature enacted a version of the Uniform Law Commission’s Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act in Article 13-A (“Article 13-A”) of the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) (see Matter of Serrano, 2017-174, NYLJ 1202790870327 [Sur Ct, New York County June 14, 2017]). Article 13-A seeks to balance the tension that may exist between (a) the well-settled notion that the fiduciary of a decedent’s estate stands in the decedent’s shoes after the decedent’s death, and (b) the public policy that favors respecting the decedent’s privacy upon the decedent’s demise (see Legislative Memorandum in Support of Article 13-A).

Under Article 13-A, except where a deceased user has prohibited disclosure of digital assets before death, or a court orders otherwise, the custodian of electronic records has a statutory duty to disclose to the personal representative of the decedent’s estate “a catalogue of electronic communications sent or received by a deceased user (other than the content of the electronic communications)” upon receipt of the following from the personal representative: (a) a written request for such disclosure; (b) a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate; and (c) a certified copy of the letters appointing the fiduciary (or a small-estate certificate or court order) (see Serrano, supra; EPTL § 13-A-3.2). A custodian of electronic records may request: (a) the username for the deceased user’s account, among other identifying information; (b) “evidence linking the account to the [deceased] user”; (c) “an affidavit stating that disclosure of the [deceased] user’s digital assets is reasonably necessary for administration of the [deceased user’s] estate”; or (d) a judicial determination that the deceased user had an account with the custodian, or that “disclosure of the [deceased] user’s digital assets is reasonably necessary for administration of the estate” (see id.). Critically, Article 13-A defines the term “catalogue of electronic communications” as “information that identifies each person with which a user has had an electronic communication, the time and date of the communication, and the electronic address of the person” (see EPTL § 13-A-1[d]).

With respect to the content of electronic communications (i.e., the text of e-mails), Article 13-A provides that, where a deceased user has consented to, or a court orders, “disclosure of the contents of electronic communications of the [deceased] user,” the custodian of electronic records “shall disclose to the executor, administrator or personal representative of the estate of the [deceased] user the content of” the deceased user’s electronic communications, if the fiduciary of the deceased user’s estate provides the following to the custodian: (a) a written request for such disclosure; (b) a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate; (c) a certified copy of the letters appointing the fiduciary (or a small-estate certificate or court order); and (d) “unless the [deceased] user provided direction using an online tool, a copy of the [deceased] user’s will, trust or other record evidencing the user’s consent to disclosure of the content of [the deceased user’s] electronic communications” (see EPTL § 13-A-3.1[a]-[d]).[1] A custodian of electronic records may request: (a) the username for the deceased user’s account, among other identifying information; (b) “evidence linking the account to the [deceased] user”; or (c) a judicial determination that (i) the deceased user “had a specific account with the custodian”, (ii) “disclosure of the content of [the deceased user’s] electronic communications . . . would not violate [the federal Stored Communications Act, which Congress “enacted in 1986 as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act”,] or other applicable law”, (iii) “unless the [deceased] user provided direction using an online tool, the [deceased] user consented to disclosure of the content of electronic communications”; or (iv) “disclosure of the content of [the deceased user’s electronic communications] is reasonably necessary for administration of the [deceased user’s] estate” (see EPTL § 13-A-3.1[e]).

With the foregoing statutory provisions in mind, Surrogate Mella recently addressed whether the fiduciary of a decedent’s estate had a statutory right to “access his deceased spouse’s Google email, contacts and calendar information in order to ‘be able to inform friends of [the decedent’s] passing’ and ‘close any unfinished business’” (see Serrano, supra). Surrogate Mella was called upon to address this issue after the fiduciary contacted Google in order to obtain such access, prompting Google to request “a court order specifying that, among other things, ‘disclosure of the content [of the requested electronic information] would not violate any applicable laws, including but not limited to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and any state equivalent” (see id.).

In considering the fiduciary’s right to access the contacts and calendar (i.e., the non-content material) associated with the decedent’s Google e-mail account, Surrogate Mella found that the requested disclosure was warranted and directed Google to make it (see id.). The Surrogate explained that “disclosure of the non-content information is permitted, if not mandated, by Article 13-A of the EPTL and does not violate [the governing federal privacy law]” (see id.).

With respect to the fiduciary’s request to access the contents of the decedent’s Google e-mail account (the actual text of the e-mail messages), Surrogate Mella reached a different result (see id.). The Surrogate wrote: “Authority to request from Google disclosure of the content of the decedent’s email communications – to the extent that [the fiduciary] requests such authority – is denied without prejudice to an application . . . , on notice to Google, establishing that disclosure of that electronic information is reasonably necessary for the administration of the estate” (see id.). Interestingly, the decision does not indicate that the decedent consented to granting the fiduciary of his estate access to the content of his e-mails (see id.).

In light of the foregoing, it appears that, absent a prohibition by the user, the fiduciary of a deceased user’s estate should, in most instances, be granted access to the non-content information associated with the deceased user’s e-mail account upon compliance with Article 13-A. Where the user consents to the fiduciary of his or her estate accessing the content of the user’s electronic communications, or a court orders otherwise, the fiduciary of the deceased user’s estate may be granted access to the content of the deceased user’s e-mail account under Article 13-A. It will be interesting to see how the Surrogates apply Article 13-A in the future.

[1] Article 13-A defines the term “online tool” as “an electronic service provided by a custodian that allows the user, in an agreement distinct from the terms-of-service agreement between the custodian and user, to provide directions for disclosure or nondisclosure of digital assets to a third person” (see EPTL § 13-A-1[p]). Facebook’s “legacy contact” feature appears to be an example of an online tool.

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.

thatIn some will contests, lawyers will speculate that the decedent may have misled people as to his true estate plan, either out of weakness, to keep the peace, to measure reactions, to avoid uncomfortable conversations, and perhaps, sadly, intending to cause pain and disappointment. When this happens, it may be easier, for example, for a son to believe that his sister was responsible for subverting their mother’s wishes than to even approach the idea that his mother was not being truthful when she told him that he would receive “everything.” Bitter litigation is often the result. We can speculate that there may have been a bit of that going on with the parties involved in Gersh v. Nixon Peabody LLP, 2017 NY Slip Op 30363(U), (Sup Ct, New York County 2017), outside of the context of a will contest.

Decedent’s surviving spouse was the Plaintiff in Gersh, suing individually, and as executor of Decedent’s estate, for legal malpractice against Nixon Peabody LLP. She alleged that the firm committed malpractice in rendering planning services to her and to the Decedent, who jointly retained the Nixon firm in 2003. At that time, the Decedent — married for the third time, some forty years after his divorce from his first wife — decided to create a will and amend an existing revocable trust. When he did so, his obligations to the children of his first marriage under a separation agreement were seemingly unaccounted for in his estate plan.

Decedent and his first wife had two children, Laurie and Ellynn. The couple entered into a separation agreement 1963. The agreement provided that if the first wife survived Decedent, and if Laurie and Ellynn had reached the age of 21 at the time of Decedent’s death, then Decedent was obligated to leave 50% of his estate in trust for the first wife, with the remainder passing to Laurie and Ellynn upon their mother’s death. This provision is not a model of clarity. For example – – what are the terms of this “trust”? What is this separation agreement referring to when it refers to Decedent’s “estate”? Is it the Decedent’s probate estate? Or the Decedent’s net estate for estate tax purposes? Or something else?

If the Decedent had wanted his surviving spouse to receive all of his wealth despite the separation agreement, he could have employed trusts, life insurance, beneficiary designations, lifetime transfers and gifts, and other mechanisms to, at the very least, reduce what his first wife and children would receive . Arguably, it was possible to plan around the separation agreement, and for the Decedent to ensure that his surviving spouse received all of his assets, and that his first wife and Laurie and Ellynn received nothing. However, no such planning was done.

The Decedent died in 2014, and it appears that he died with a substantial probate estate. The Decedent’s first wife died shortly thereafter, and their children, Laurie and Ellynn, promptly claimed that they were entitled to 50% of their father’s estate pursuant to the separation agreement. Their claim against the Decedent’s estate ultimately settled for $2.367 million.

After compromising the claim, Plaintiff sued the Nixon firm. She alleged that the Nixon firm was aware that the Decedent had been divorced twice, but nevertheless neglected to perform a proper inquiry and investigation to determine the existence of the separation agreement. She maintained that the Nixon firm committed legal malpractice because it never inquired about or obtained a copy of the agreement, and never informed her and the Decedent that the Decedent’s first wife and children had a potential claim to as much as 50% of his estate. She further alleged that the Nixon firm did not provide her and the Decedent with advice to reduce exposure to such a claim in order to fulfill the Decedent’s wish to leave virtually all of his assets to Plaintiff. She claimed that if the Nixon firm had done so, the Decedent would have taken appropriate steps in planning and that she would have received the $2 million-plus that was paid to Laurie and Ellynn in settlement of their claim.

Examining Plaintiff’s claim on a motion to dismiss, the Court observed that it was undisputed that the Decedent was aware of the separation agreement at all relevant times, and that the Decedent did not inform the Nixon firm of the existence of the separation agreement. Citing well-settled law, the Court held that an attorney cannot be held liable for legal malpractice for failing to disclose facts already known to the client. Moreover, the Court held that even assuming that the Nixon firm had a duty to investigate separation agreements attendant to the Decedent’s prior marriages, and advise as to the effect of same, and was negligent in failing to do so, that Plaintiff could only speculate that this negligence was the proximate cause of her loss in the settlement paid to Laurie and Ellynn. Citing the familiar case of Leff v. Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, 78 AD3d 531 (1st Dept 2010), the Court held that Plaintiff’s assertions as to what Decedent would have done had he received advice concerning the effect of the separation agreement on his estate plan were speculative and insufficient to support a legal malpractice claim.

In Gersh, it may have been that the Decedent had some sense of obligation to his first wife and Laurie and Ellynn. He may have known full well that his first wife and/or children might make a claim for 50% of his estate when he was working with the Nixon firm on his estate plan. He may have decided that it would be easier to let his first wife and children make a claim against his estate rather than talk to his wife about how he wanted to leave them something out of a sense of obligation. He may have wished to avoid a conversation, or a series of excruciating conversations, with his wife about whether and to what extent his children should receive assets upon his death. On the other hand, perhaps Decedent relished the idea of a fight between his surviving spouse and his first wife and children after his passing and his estate plan was so designed. Even if the Nixon firm had enlightened him as to the effect that the separation agreement would have had on his estate plan, he might have opted to do nothing. We can only speculate.

A person’s standing to interpose objections to probate is governed by SCPA §1410, which provides that,

 any person whose interest in property or in the estate of the testator would be adversely affected by the admission of the will to probate may file objections to the probate of the will or of any portion thereof except that one whose only financial interest would be in the commission to which he would have been entitled if his appointed as fiduciary were not revoked by a later instrument shall not be entitled to file objections to the probate of such instrument unless authorized by the court for good cause shown.

The case law has firmly established that the interest that would be adversely affected must be pecuniary in nature (see, e.g., In re Hall, 12 AD3d 511 [2d Dept 2004]). An interest based on sympathy, sentiment, or anything other than the gain or loss of money is insufficient to confer standing.

Recently, the Kings County Surrogate’s Court rejected two different standing arguments in Estate of Saunders, a contested probate proceeding. First, in a January 2017 decision, the Court rejected the petitioner’s argument that sons of the decedent lacked standing to file objections (see Estate of Saunders, NYLJ, Jan. 27, 2017, p.35). Under the will, each of the sons was bequeathed $100, and the residuary was to be divided equally among three charities. Following the decedent’s death, the sons, as “sole heirs of the estate,” transferred all of their purported interest in real property owned by the decedent, which had become part of the residuary estate, to a limited liability company (id.). The petitioner claimed that as a result of that transfer, the respondents had no pecuniary interest in the estate that would be adversely affected by the admission of the will to probate. In opposition, the respondents argued that the cash bequests gave them an additional interest in the estate. They further argued that the estate indeed had cash. The petitioner conceded both of those facts, but asserted that the cash had been depleted through the administration of the estate. The court was not persuaded that the executor’s proper use of the cash assets for administration purposes determined whether the respondents had standing under the statute. It concluded that because the respondents assigned away only their purported interest in the real property, and not their interests as distributees of the decedent, they indeed had standing to interpose objections to probate.

The Surrogate addressed standing again in a later decision, when the LLC moved to intervene and file objections on the grounds that it was a good faith purchaser of the real property, and would be adversely affected by the admission of the will to probate (see Estate of Saunders, NYLJ, Mar. 1, 2017, p.25, col. 6 [Sur Ct, Kings County]). In an unpublished decision and order, the Surrogate found that the LLC lacked standing. Although we don’t know the court’s precise reasoning, its decision is not that surprising, as the LLC was not a beneficiary of the real estate under the will or prior will, and certainly was not a distributee or legatee of the decedent.

Not content to sit on the sidelines and rely on the sons’ objections to preserve its purported interest in the property, the LLC subsequently moved to renew its motion on the grounds that it had commenced a proceeding to quiet title to the property, which the Supreme Court stayed pending the outcome of the contested probate proceeding. According to the LLC, it would have no recourse to protect its interest if it could not intervene. The Surrogate was not persuaded. First, it noted that a motion to renew, pursuant to CPLR §2221(e) must be based on new facts that existed at the time the original motion was made, but were not presented at that time. The LLC’s motion was grounded on the Supreme Court’s stay order which occurred years after the original motion to intervene was made. The Surrogate sua sponte also considered the motion as one for reargument, pursuant to CPLR §2221(d), but again, found that it failed because the LLC did not claim that the Surrogate misapprehended the facts or law, but rather, advanced an entirely new argument, which is not a proper basis for such a motion.

As parties prepare for trial before the Surrogate’s Court, a question that oftentimes arises is whether the parties have a right to a trial by jury. The right to a jury trial is anything but universal in Surrogate’s Court proceedings, and, in fact, does not exist in a proceeding concerning the removal of a fiduciary. This blog post explains why no right to a jury trial exists in a Surrogate’s Court removal proceeding.

The Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) provides that a party is only entitled to a jury trial in a proceeding “in which any controverted question of fact arises as to which [the] party has a constitutional right of trial by a jury, in any proceeding for the probate of a will in which a controverted question of fact arises, and in any proceeding commenced after the death of the creator of a revocable lifetime trust to contest the validity of such trust in which a controverted question of fact exists” (see SCPA § 502[1]). Under Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution of the State of New York, a constitutional right to a jury trial only exists in those “cases in which it has heretofore been guaranteed by constitutional provisions” (see N.Y. Const. Art. 1, § 2; Matter of Mastro’s Will, 100 Misc2d 866, 867 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 1979] [citations omitted] [“The result of (that) constitutional provision, enacted in 1938, is that the constitutional guarantee of a jury trial continues only to the degree that such jury trials were authorized prior to the 1938 Constitution”]).

Based upon the foregoing, in Matter of Ruggiero, the Second Department held that a party did not have a right to a jury trial in a removal proceeding (see Matter of Ruggiero, 51 AD2d 969, 969-71 [2d Dep’t 1976]). There, the petitioner sought a trial by jury in the proceeding she commenced to remove the decedent’s sister as the fiduciary of the decedent’s estate (see id.). The Surrogate’s Court and Appellate Division both found that a jury trial was unwarranted, mindful that there is no right to a trial by jury in a removal proceeding under the New York State Constitution or the SCPA (see id.).

In light of the foregoing, a party preparing for trial in a Surrogate’s Court removal proceeding should plan to proceed before the Surrogate. Such a party does not have a right to have its trial heard by a jury.

Although one of the many duties and responsibilities of an executor is to marshal and appraise estate assets, and, depending upon the dispositive terms of the governing instrument, liquidate them for purposes of distribution, the fulfillment of these duties may, at times, result in fiduciary liability. In Matter of Billmyer, 142 AD3d 1000 (2d Dept 2016), the Appellate Division, Second Department, considered this issue, in an appeal from an Order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Lopez Torres, S.), which surcharged the executor for selling certain real property of the estate below fair market value.

The decedent died with a brownstone residence, located in Brooklyn, New York, valued at approximately $1.5 million. In her Will, she named four Lutheran charities and Adelphi University as residuary beneficiaries of her estate.

Two years after the decedent’s death, the executor entered a contract for the sale of the Brownstone residence to an acquaintance of his for the sum of $670,000. Prior to the closing, the purchaser assigned his rights under the contract to an LLC, and the sale was consummated shortly thereafter between the estate and the LLC. Three days after this sale, the LLC sold the subject property to an unrelated third party for the sum of $1,300,000, pursuant to the terms of a contract dated one month prior to the date of the contract that it had entered with the estate.

The executor then accounted, and objections were filed by the charitable beneficiaries and the Attorney General of the State of New York, as the statutory representative of the charities. Following depositions, Adelphi University and the Attorney General moved for summary judgment determining that the sale of the real property was for less than its fair market value, and surcharging the executor accordingly. The executor opposed, alleging that the property required extensive repairs prior to its initial sale, albeit without an explanation as to how the property resold three days later for almost twice the price. The Surrogate’s Court granted the motion, and surcharged the executor in the sum of $630,000, plus 6% interest from the date of the estate’s sale to the date of remittance.

The Appellate Division affirmed, opining that in performing his fiduciary duty, the executor was required to employ good business judgment. Further, the Court explained that to the extent the executor failed to satisfy this standard in the sale of estate property, he could be surcharged. However, the Court cautioned that a surcharge did not result simply upon a showing that the estate fiduciary did not obtain the highest price obtainable for an asset. Rather, it had be demonstrated that the executor “acted negligently, and with an absence of diligence and prudence which an ordinary [person] would exercise in his [or her] own affairs” (Billmyer, citing Matter of Lovell, 25 AD3d 386, 387 [2d Dep’t 2005]).

Within this context, the Court noted that the executor chose a real estate agent for the sale of the brownstone, who was based in Staten Island, had no knowledge about the Brooklyn real estate market, and did not actively market the property for sale. Moreover, the record indicated that the executor did not obtain an appraisal of the property at the time of sale or learn the fair market value of comparable properties, failed to visit the property for an extended period of time prior to sale, and was unaware of how the property was being marketed.  In addition, he sold the property to an acquaintance of his, when there was an unrelated third party ready and willing to buy the property for nearly double the price paid by the LLC.

In view thereof, the Court found that the objectants had established, prima facie, that the executor had breached his fiduciary duty and acted negligently with respect to the sale of the property. Further, it concluded that the executor had failed to submit evidence in opposition sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact. Finally, the Court held that the Surrogate’s Court had properly exercised its discretion in awarding interest upon the surcharge, based upon proof that three days after the executor had sold the property, it was resold for nearly twice the original purchase price.

A nominated executor is obliged to secure estate assets even before the issuance of letters testamentary, or preliminary letters testamentary (see Matter of Schultz, 104 AD3d 1146 [4th Dept. 2013]).  Courts have recognized that “an executor’s duties are derived from the will itself, not from the letters issued by the Surrogate” (Estate of Skelly, 284 AD2d 336 [2d Dept. 2001]).  Thus, as we have noted in a prior post, executors have been subject to surcharge for a loss sustained to estate property in the period between the decedent’s death and the executor’s receipt of letters from the Surrogate’s Court (see, e.g., Matter of Donner, 82 NY2d 574 [1993] [surcharging nominated executors for investment losses based on date of death values]; Matter of Kranzle, N.Y.L.J. 11/7/1991 p. 28, col. 1 [Sur Ct, Suffolk Co.] [surcharging nominated executor for interest and penalties on taxes due several months after decedent’s death, but before the probate proceeding commenced]).

Decisions addressing a nominated executor’s obligations in respect of estate assets before formal appointment by the Court usually arise from the fiduciary’s failure to act. A recent case, however, addressed the nominated executor’s obligations not in the context of an omission, but, instead, involved the fiduciary’s expenditure of funds to safeguard property that ended up not being estate property (Matter of Timpano (Brough), 2016 NY Slip Op 51770(U) [Sur Ct, Oneida Co.]).  Although the nominated executor’s actions may have been misdirected, the Surrogate permitted an allowance from the estate for these expenses as the actions were undertaken in good faith and, further, the Court cited the need to avoid deterring other nominated executors from taking immediate measures to safeguard estate property.

In Estate of Skelly, supra, the fiduciary was notified at the decedent’s funeral in May 1995 that she had been named executor.  It was undisputed that she failed to probate the will until November 1996, over one year after decedent’s death.  During that time, decedent’s real property, which was bequeathed under the will, was vandalized and damaged.  The person to whom the property was bequeathed sought damages for the loss.

The Surrogate denied the executor’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the objections, and the Second Department affirmed.  Even though title to the real property may have vested with the objectant on the death of the decedent, the Second Department found “there are issues of fact as to whether the [executor] failed to assess the assets of the estate and neglected to preserve the premises prior to probate.” (Skelly, 284 AD2d at 337).

In Timpano, the decedent’s sister, Georgianna, lived in a mobile home in Florida across the street from one in which decedent resided. Decedent died in April 2010 survived by his three children, Mark, Kelly and Robert. His will named Georgianna as executor.

Probate of decedent’s will was delayed by SCPA 1404 examinations and, following the testimony of one attesting witness, Georgianna withdrew her probate petition. Ultimately, the Oneida County Chief Fiscal Officer (the “CFO”) was appointed as administrator of the estate.

Believing decedent owned the mobile home in which he lived, beginning in April 2010 (the month of decedent’s death), Georgianna used her personal funds to pay lot rent to avoid confiscation of the mobile home and its contents. She further paid for electrical service to run the air conditioning to avoid mold and mildew so as to further protect the mobile home and decedent’s possessions therein. At no time did any of decedent’s children object to her covering these expenses.

In January 2011, decedent’s son Robert informed Georgianna that he had searched the title to the mobile home and found that his name was on the title. Upon learning this, Georgianna removed the decedent’s possessions from the mobile home and placed them in storage. She further stopped paying lot rent and electric bills.

When the CFO submitted its final accounting, decedent’s daughter Kelly objected to Georgianna being reimbursed for the expenses for lot rent and electric service. Kelly testified in support of her objections and, significantly, acknowledged that she too believed the mobile home was estate property before being told otherwise in January 2011

The Surrogate found Georgianna’s actions following decedent’s death evidenced her understanding that a nominated executor has an obligation to secure assets of an estate prior to formal appointment, citing Schultz, supra. Even though the will was not ultimately admitted to probate, the Surrogate noted, “Georgianna would have had no basis to anticipate this outcome when she acted to preserve decedent’s assets throughout 2010 and into early 2011.”

The Surrogate recognized that Kelly’s claim that if the estate did not own the property, it could not be responsible for related expenses, is true in a technical sense. The Surrogate, however, noted that to rule in Kelly’s favor would ignore the circumstances of the case.

After reviewing the cases holding that an individual who expends personal funds in good faith in furtherance of her fiduciary responsibilities is entitled to reimbursement, the Surrogate found Georgianna acted in good faith and should be entitled to reimbursement from the estate.[1] The Court reinforced its decision by reference to the following policy consideration: “to sustain the objections would be to instill a chilling effect on the work of nominated executors who are tasked with preserving an asset believed in good faith…to belong to the estate” (Timpano, supra).

 

 

[1] The Court directed that part of the expenses be charged against Robert’s share of the estate.