In Matter of Smith, 2010 NY Slip Op 20381 (Sur Ct, Bronx County), Surrogate Holzman recently addressed a proponent’s motion to dispense with the testimony of an attesting witness at the SCPA §1404 stage of a probate proceeding. The subject witness had relocated to Florida since the date of the execution of the propounded instrument, and had been uncooperative with the attorney-draftsman, also the attorney for the proponent, for reasons unbeknownst to him. One of the respondent’s daughters opposed the motion.

Ultimately, after being contacted by an investigator hired by the proponent, the witness agreed to a deposition via video conference, assuming she would remain in Florida. Nonetheless, presumably due to disobliging nature of the witness, the proponent sought to dispense with her testimony. 

In support of her motion, the proponent argued that that a commission to obtain the subject witness’ testimony was unnecessary in view of the fact that the attorney-draftsman and one attesting witness had already been deposed, and the uncooperative witness had signed a self-proving affidavit at the time of the execution. She further asserted that she would consent to a commission to obtain the witness’ testimony in Florida only if the cost were borne by the party opposing the motion. Indeed, the proponent claimed that funding the commission would be a hardship for the estate because its only asset was a parcel of real property. 

In response, the opposing party argued that the cost of the commission could be covered by the sale of the estate’s real property, and that testimony of the second attesting witness was pertinent to clarify the events of the execution ceremony.

SCPA §1405 provides that the testimony of an attesting witness can be dispensed with under limited circumstances. Specifically, pursuant to statute the court must be satisfied that, if living, the witness “cannot with due diligence be found within the state or cannot be examined by reason of his physical or mental condition . . .” (SCPA §1405[1]). Thus, the only scenario in which an out-of-state witness’ testimony may be dispensed with is if his examination cannot be obtained with reasonable diligence; but if the testimony can be obtained, SCPA §1405(2) mandates that it proceed by commission upon the demand of any party. Accordingly, Surrogate Holzman denied the motion, granting the respondent’s daughter’s request that the testimony of the Florida witness proceed by commission.

With respect to the issue of which party would bear the costs of the examinations, the court explained that SCPA §1404(5) provides that the estate is to pay for either, “(1) the first two attesting witnesses within the state or (2) if there is no competent witness within the state, the witness without the state who resides closest to the county in which probate proceedings are pending” (Matter of Smith, 2010 NY Slip Op 20381 , *2 [Sur Ct, Bronx County]). The costs of all other examinations are to be governed by Article 31 of the CPLR (see SCPA §1404[5]). Thus, because one of the witnesses in issue resided within the state, the subject examination fell into the latter category.

According to CPLR 3116(d), “unless the court orders otherwise, the party taking the deposition shall bear the expense thereof”. Consequently, the court opined that because the respondent failed to present good cause to persuade it to deviate from that rule, respondent was to pay for the examination. The court further held that the respondent may proceed with the examination by video conference if she were to find it more cost effective than a commission, and, notably, that the proponent may renew her motion to dispense with the testimony if the examination were not arranged within 90 days of the decision and order. 

It appears that the latter portion of this holding is simply a logical extension of the statute. If the party who demanded the examination neglects to ensure its occurrence, it is arguably deemed abandoned. Interestingly, however, the statute includes no such provision.