Pursuant to the provisions of EPTL 5-1.1-A, every surviving spouse of a domiciliary decedent is entitled to a statutory right of election. The elective share statute is intended to provide a decedent’s surviving spouse with a requisite minimum amount of his/her estate. While a surviving spouse may be disqualified from an elective share under any one of the circumstances enumerated in EPTL 5-1.2, the Surrogate’s and Appellate Courts have crafted a further ground for forfeiture when equity so requires. This was the result achieved by the Second Department’s opinion in Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010), and more recently, by the opinion rendered by the Surrogate’s Court, King’s County, in Matter of Berk, NYLJ, July 2, 2018, p. 31 (Sur Ct, Kings County), discussed below.
In In re Berk, the court held, after trial, that by virtue of her wrongdoing, the decedent’s surviving spouse had forfeited her right of election against his estate. Prior to thihttps://www.nyestatelitigationblog.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=16851&action=edit#edit_timestamps result, the Berk estate had been the subject of two opinions by the Appellate Division, Second Department. In the first, the Court reversed an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.) granting summary judgment to the petitioner, finding that there was an issue of fact as to whether the petitioner had forfeited her right of election by her alleged wrongdoing. The Court further ruled that the appellants’ counterclaims alleging undue influence were improperly dismissed. In the second opinion, the Court modified an order of the same court by (1) adding as an issue of fact to be tried the question of whether the petitioner, the decedent’s surviving spouse, exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate, and (2) replacing so much of the order, as imposed the burden of proof on appellants, the executors of the estate, by clear and convincing evidence, with a provision that placed the burden of proof on appellants by a preponderance of the credible evidence.
At the trial of the matter that followed, the Surrogate’s Court framed three issues to be heard, lodged principally in whether the decedent possessed the requisite mental capacity to marry the petitioner, or alternatively, whether the petitioner unduly influenced the decedent to marry her for her own pecuniary benefit.
On the issue of capacity, the court found the record replete with credible evidence that the decedent suffered from both physical and mental impairments, and manifested significant hearing loss, and periods of confusion. Additionally, the court noted that on the day prior to his purported marriage to the petitioner, the decedent was unable to accurately complete the marriage license application, and made critical mistakes in the listing of his address, his place of birth, and his mother’s maiden name. Moreover, the court noted that in a photograph taken on his wedding day, the decedent appeared dazed and confused.
The court opined that the standard of capacity for marriage is whether each party to the contract was able to understand the nature, effect, and consequences of his or her actions. Within this context, and based on the “plethora” of credible evidence presented, the court concluded that the decedent was incapable of understanding or consenting to his marriage to the petitioner, and that the petitioner was well aware of his incapacity at the time the marriage was entered. Indeed, in view of the fact that the petitioner was the decedent’s primary caretaker and had ample opportunity to observe him in his daily routine, as well as the fact that she had experience in the medical field, the court found “it impossible to believe that the petitioner did not know of the decedent’s mental incapacity.”
Moreover, after considering the indicia of undue influence including the decedent’s physical and mental condition, the secrecy in which the marriage was entered, the petitioner’s control over the decedent’s daily needs, and her direction over his lifetime affairs as evidenced by the decedent’s handwritten notes that petitioner had apparently dictated, the court held that petitioner had the motive and opportunity to influence the decedent’s actions, and that she actually exercised undue influence over him in procuring their marriage.
Relying on the opinion by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010), the court observed that where a marriage has been wrongfully procured, the statutory right of election which would have emanated from such marriage will be forfeited. Accordingly, based on the record, the court denied petitioner’s request for an elective share of the decedent’s estate.