A recent decision emanating from the Appellate Division, Second Department, Matter of Venezia, implicates two fundamental — and seldom conflicting — legal principles. The first of these is that a testator has the right to designate a legally qualified person to administer his or her estate, and that designation is entitled to great deference. And, secondly, a party’s entitlement to be represented by counsel of its choice is a valued right, and any attempt to restrict that right must be carefully scrutinized.
Matter of Venezia was a probate proceeding in which the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, after a hearing, granted the motion of the objectant to disqualify the nominated executrix from serving as such and reinstated letters of administration previously issued to the objectant.
The objectant’s proffered basis for removal of the petitioner as executrix — which was accepted by the Surrogate’s Court — was that the petitioner’s selection of counsel rendered her unqualified to serve. The objectant argued that he and the petitioner’s counsel had been adversarial in a prior conservatorship proceeding and that they had a hostile relationship.
The Appellate Division began its analysis by noting that “the right of a testator or testatrix to designate, among those legally qualified, who will settle his or her affairs, is not to be lightly discarded[,]” although “the Surrogate may disqualify an individual from receiving letters of administration where friction or hostility between such individual and a beneficiary or a co-administrator or co-administratrix, especially where such individual is at fault, interferes with the proper administration of the estate, and future cooperation is unlikely” (citations omitted).
The court noted, however, that the evidence adduced at the hearing demonstrated that the objectant — not the petitioner’s counsel — was the source of the hostility between them. That fact, combined with the fact that there was no evidence that the petitioner was unqualified to serve as executrix or that she committed misconduct, lead to a determinations that the Surrogate’s Court erred in disqualifying the petitioner from serving as executrix.
Nevertheless, the Appellate Division directed that the petitioner retain new counsel to represent her, “given the hostility the objectant harbors for the petitioner’s counsel, and since it is unlikely that the objectant will cooperate with counsel in the future. . . .” Notably, the court made this determination notwithstanding its observation that “the record does not demonstrate that counsel retained by the petitioner acted improperly[.]”
So, let’s get this straight. The duly nominated fiduciary of a decedent’s estate hired an attorney of her choice. That attorney did nothing improper. Yet, due to “hostility” between the attorney and the objectant — hostility created by the objectant — and the fact that the objectant was not likely to cooperate with the petitioner’s counsel in the future, the court directed the petitioner to retain new counsel.
The Court of Appeals has made clear that a party’s entitlement to be represented by counsel of its choice is “a valued right and any restrictions [thereto] must be carefully scrutinized” (S&S Hotel Ventures Ltd. Partnership v 777 S.H. Corp., 69 NY2d 437 ). It is not clear from the Appellate Division’s decision that it adequately considered this principle when it deprived the petitioner of her counsel of choice.