My colleagues have written on the enforceability of in terrorem clauses, and the courts continue to confront challenges in reconciling the testator’s intent to impose an in terrorem condition with the rights of beneficiaries to challenge the conduct of their fiduciary. The New York County Surrogate’s Court’s recent decision in Matter of Merenstein provides further guidance to practitioners in assessing the kind of conduct that will trigger an in terrorem clause. It illustrates that the courts, in construing broad in terrorem provisions, will draw a distinction between conduct aimed at challenging the conduct of an executor and conduct aimed at nullifying a testator’s choice of executor.
In Merenstein, the decedent bequeathed his estate to his two daughters. His daughter Ilene was favored under the will – – she received 73% of the decedent’s residuary estate and was nominated the sole executor. His daughter Emma received 27% of the decedent’s residuary estate. The in terrorem clause in Merenstein provided as follows:
If any person in any manner, directly or indirectly, challenges the validity or adequacy of any bequest or devise to him or her in this Will, makes any other demand or claim against my estate, becomes a party to any proceeding to set aside, interfere with or modify any provision of this Will or of any trust established by me, or offers any objections to the probate hereof, such person and all of his or her descendants shall be deemed to have predeceased me, and accordingly they shall have no interest in this Will.
Decedent’s will was admitted to probate and Ilene was appointed executor without objection.
Emma brought a proceeding asking the court whether certain contemplated conduct on her part would trigger a forfeiture of her beneficial interest under the in terrorem clause. Her first question was whether a petition to compel the executor to account, and a subsequent petition to remove the executor in the event that the executor disregarded a court order to account, would trigger the in terrorem clause. That was easy. The court held, consistent with well-settled law, that a beneficiary will not trigger an in terrorem clause by demanding an accounting of an executor, by objecting to an executor’s accounting, or by seeking removal of the executor in the event of the executor’s failure to comply with an order to account.
Emma also asked whether she would trigger the in terrorem clause by petitioning for limited letters of administration giving her the authority to conduct an investigation into whether Ilene had fraudulently used the decedent’s credit card during the decedent’s life. This was another easy one. Consistent with well-settled law, the court held that a petition for the issuance of limited letters to pursue an investigation into whether there are assets of the estate in the possession of others, including someone who is also a fiduciary, does not seek to challenge the validity of the will or any of its provisions. The filing of such a petition and even a subsequent discovery or turnover proceeding would not cause the beneficiary to forfeit her benefits under the will.
The court drew a line however, when Emma asked whether filing a petition to suspend Ilene’s letters testamentary during the investigation into the credit card charges would trigger a forfeiture under the in terrorem provision. Emma claimed that such an order of suspension was necessary to prevent Ilene from interfering with her investigation as limited administrator. The court held that such an application would trigger the in terrorem clause. Such conduct, according to the court, would constitute an attack on the decedent’s choice of fiduciary. The court explained:
Seeking the suspension of Ilene’s letters pending any investigation that Emma may pursue and in the absence of any allegation of misconduct by Ilene in her fiduciary capacity is akin to a challenge to the testator’s choice of fiduciary as established under the will. The in terrorem clause in decedent’s will disinherits a beneficiary who commences a proceeding to set aside any of the provisions of the will, and therefore, the filing of this type of petition, which does not fall within the safe harbor provisions of EPTL 3-3.5 (b), would result in forfeiture in this case
Finally, Emma asked the court whether a petition to remove Ilene as executor in the event that Ilene was determined to have engaged in improper conduct with respect to the credit card charges would trigger the in terrorem clause. The court declined to rule on that question. It did however, point out that the alleged credit card charges occurred while the decedent was still alive, and earlier in the decision, cited to Matter of Cohn, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division, First Department.
In the Cohn estate, the courts confirmed that public policy will bar the application of an in terrorem clause where a beneficiary seeks removal of an executor based on allegations of the executor’s misconduct in their capacity as executor, but will not bar the application of an in terrorem clause where a beneficiary seeks to remove or supplant an executor based on some other ostensible basis that constitutes an attack on the testator’s choice of fiduciary, or on the powers and authority given to the fiduciary by the testator. There, the courts recognized that an attempt to displace the testator’s chosen executors based on the allegation that such executors had failed to fully inform the testator of the compensation that they would receive as executors was simply an attack on the testator’s choice of fiduciary that would trigger an in terrorem clause similar to the in terrorem provision in Merenstein.
The court in Merenstein, like the courts in the Cohn estate, recognized that fidelity to a testator’s intent warrants a fact-sensitive inquiry in enforcing terrorem clauses. Based on Merenstein and Cohn, it is clear that a beneficiary would be hard-pressed to claim that a limited administrator should supplant an executor in representing the estate in a litigation where the executor has no conflict, has not failed to act, and has not engaged in misconduct as executor, without triggering an in terrorem provision like that in Merenstein. Similarly, a beneficiary should understand that petitioning for a limited administrator to perform some estate administration task on the mere allegation that the executor has bias or hostility towards the beneficiary because of some events that occurred between the beneficiary and executor while the decedent was still alive is sure to be considered a challenge to the testator’s choice of fiduciary. Such a challenge will trigger an in terrorem clause like that in Merenstein. When faced with an in terrorem provision like that in Merenstein, a beneficiary must consider whether it is challenging the conduct of the fiduciary, or attacking the decedent’s choice of fiduciary. There is a difference, and it could mean a forfeiture.