My most recent blog post, titled No Sex, No Elective Share?, discussed a recent case involving allegations of constructive abandonment as a basis for disqualifying a surviving spouse from receiving an elective share. In that post, I also discussed, briefly, actual abandonment as a basis for disqualification. Unlike constructive abandonment, actual abandonment requires proof that the surviving spouse lived apart from the decedent, without consent.
In early January, the Appellate Division, Third Department, decided Matter of Yengle, 2014 NY Slip Op 00156 (3d Dept, Jan. 9, 2014). In that case, the decedent’s sister sought to disqualify the respondent as the decedent’s surviving spouse, and to remove her as administrator of the decedent’s estate, on the ground that she had abandoned the decedent. The Appellate Division determined that the Surrogate’s Court improperly granted the respondent’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the petition.
It appears to have been undisputed that the decedent and the respondent, although legally married, lived separately for about a decade. The respondent, according to the Appellate Division, made out a prima facie case for summary judgment by offering proof that that she and decedent resided together for some time following their marriage, during which the decedent drank heavily and abused her, physically and mentally, occasionally requiring police intervention; the decedent would leave their home for periods of time and the respondent ultimately suggested that they live separately; following their separation, the decedent and the respondent mostly communicated by telephone every couple of months and saw each other occasionally; and the decedent was aware that the respondent had two affairs during their marriage, and was not angry. This evidence, according to the Court, was sufficient to meet the respondent’s threshold burden on her summary judgment motion, thus shifting the burden to the petitioner to demonstrate the existence of a question of fact for trial.
The Appellate Division determined that the petitioner did, indeed, raise an issue of fact for trial. The petitioner’s testimony casted doubt onto respondent’s allegations concerning the decedent’s alcoholism and her allegations of abuse. The court noted that the respondent never pursued criminal charges against the decedent, initiated a family offense proceeding, or otherwise sought an order of protection against the decedent as a result of the alleged abuse. The petitioner further testified that she knew, based upon her conversations with the decedent and her observations of his emotional distress, that he wanted to be with the respondent and would not have consented to her living apart from him. The record also contained cards that the decedent gave to the respondent, in which he expressed his love for her. Finally, the respondent testified that the decedent had asked her to return to him, but she allegedly refused to do so because of his alcohol abuse. This evidence, according to the Appellate Division, raised a triable issue of fact concerning the decedent’s consent to the respondent’s absence. (Notably, much of this evidence would be potentially excludable at trial, pursuant to the Dead Man’s Statute (CPLR 4519), but nonetheless could be considered on a motion for summary judgment.)
As the Appellate Division noted in its decision, quoting authority, “[t]he question of abandonment is one of fact, and often a close one.” Summary judgment in such a case will rarely be appropriate. The party claiming abandonment ultimately bears the burden of proof, and that burden is a heavy one. Evidentiary hurdles, moreover, may prove insurmountable.