A recent decision from the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court, Edelman v Hatami is an entertaining read. The decision addresses the Statute of Frauds, and provides a good example of how litigants will attempt to employ the equitable doctrines of promissory estoppel and constructive trust in estate litigation. 

In Edelman the defendant sought recovery against a decedent’s estate, claiming breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and constructive trust. According to the decision, the defendant met the decedent sometime in 1995 or 1996, when the defendant became a tenant in a building owned by the decedent. At that time, the defendant was in her early 30s, and the decedent was in his late 60s. They developed what the Court described as an “intimate” relationship that lasted until the decedent died in September 2004 at the age of 77. According to the defendant, in exchange for certain services rendered on her part, the decedent orally agreed to pay her living expenses for a three-year period, to pay her law school tuition, and to transfer to her the apartment in which she resided. The services allegedly provided to the decedent included ensuring that decedent was cared for and fed healthy, nutritious meals; monitoring the decedent’s medical and physical condition; acting as the decedent’s personal confidant concerning all aspects of the decedent’s life; and, acting as decedent’s business confidant. The Court dismissed all of the defendant’s claims. 

The Court’s dismissal of the defendant’s breach of contract, promissory estoppel and quasi-contract claims was based, in part, on its determination that the services provided by the defendant were consistent with the “intimate” relationship that the decedent and the defendant shared. The Court also noted that the defendant received substantial benefits from the decedent in the course of their relationship, such as an allowance of approximately $5,000 per month, nearly $200,000.00 in credit card charges over a period of several years, and a year-long all-expense-paid trip to England.  The Court’s dismissal of the defendant’s constructive trust claim was based on the defendant’s failure to demonstrate a necessary element of a constructive trust; a transfer on the defendant’s part in reliance on a promise of the decedent. If you enjoy reading the decision, stay tuned, as it appears that the defendant may be taking an appeal.