In Matter of Ross, the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court canceled the recording of a deed pursuant to which the decedent allegedly conveyed ownership of his residence to his wife, Gladys. The court did so because it determined, after a three-day trial on the merits, that while the decedent executed the deed, he did not deliver it to his wife during his lifetime. Thus, the alleged transfer was ineffective.

Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. It is not unusual, especially in matters concerning decedents’ estates, that the facts of a case are such that a court’s rigid adherence to the law results in injustice and hardship. Ross, however, was not one of those cases. I submit that it is impossible to review the facts of the case and feel sympathy for the decedent’s widow.

The decedent executed a Will in November 2004. At that time, the decedent rejected his attorney’s suggestion that he simply bequeath his house outright to Gladys, indicating that it was not his desire at that time to do so. However, about a month later, the attorney prepared a deed at the decedent’s direction conveying the property to Gladys. The decedent did not ask his attorney to record the deed, however; the decedent told his attorney that he intended to take the deed with him. It was clear to the decedent’s attorney that the decedent “was not going out to record it himself".

The evidence elicited at trial concerning non-delivery of the deed was, simply put, overwhelming. 

First, two years after executing the deed, the decedent executed another Will — which was ultimately admitted to probate. That Will provided that the residence be placed in a marital deduction trust for Gladys’ benefit. Notably, the attorney draftsman of the Will testified that Gladys was present at all of the meetings with the decedent regarding his estate plan, and never made any mention of a deed purporting to convey the property to her. The attorney draftsman testified that she gave no indication during the meetings that she believed she already owned the property which the decedent intended to place in trust for her benefit.

Second, Gladys signed the probate petition indicating that the residence was an asset of the decedent’s estate at the time of his death. She also participated in obtaining an appraisal of the property, consistent with the proposition that the property was an estate asset.

Third, after friction arose among the co-executors and they retained separate counsel, Gladys insisted that the house be sold. She executed a contract of sale of the property to a third party. Her co-executors also executed the contract. That contract, prepared by Gladys’ attorney, initially identified Gladys as the seller of the property because the person preparing the contract was under the mistaken impression that Gladys was the owner. However, after discussing the same “at length” with Gladys and her sons, the contract was modified to reflect that the estate was the seller. 

Fourth, Gladys made various demands against the estate in connection with her possibly agreeing to forego her statutory right of election. One of those demands was that the subject property be turned over to her. 

Fifth, Gladys commenced a proceeding seeking the removal of her co-executors and co-trustees. Among other things, Gladys’s petition alleged that she had been attempting to sell the residence, an asset of the estate, but her co-executors refused to sign a contract of sale. 

This was not a “hard case”.

The Court explained that the law presumes that an executed deed was delivered and accepted as of the date of its execution. It further noted, however, that that presumption is rebuttable and “may be repelled by proof of attendant facts and subsequent circumstances, such as . . . declarations of the supposed grantee which are inconsistent with the transfer of the title. . . .”

According to the Court, there was “not a shred of objective evidence” that the deed was ever delivered to Gladys. It noted that, on the contrary, the evidence was overwhelming that Gladys was completely unaware of the deed’s existence until she, in effect, stumbled onto it sometime after the decedent’s death.

Moreover, the Court apparently had serious issues with Gladys’ credibility. At her deposition, Gladys testified under oath that she located the deed in a piece of furniture while packing for her move to California. However, in a prior sworn statement, she alleged that she found the deed while unpacking in California. 

Based on all of this, the Court determined that the deed was not delivered to Gladys during his lifetime. The transfer, therefore, was ineffective.