This is a common question from clients involved in litigation – – especially estate litigation. As a general rule, a party cannot recover attorney’s fees for successfully prosecuting or defending a lawsuit. This is the “American Rule,” and it is engrained in our legal system. New York courts are wary of deviating from the American Rule, and will only do so under certain circumstances, such as (1) where the dispute litigated arises out of a contract, and the contract expressly provides for recovery of attorney’s fees; or, (2) where an applicable statute or rule expressly and unambiguously permits recovery of attorney’s fees.

Award of Legal Fees Pursuant to Contract

Sometimes, parties to a contract will agree that the “prevailing party” to any litigation arising out of the contract may recover legal fees incurred in the litigation. This begs the question – – what does “prevailing party” mean? The courts have defined a “prevailing party” as the party that succeeded on the central relief sought, or prevailed on the central claims advanced and received a substantial remedy.

Once the court identifies the “prevailing party” it will fix the legal fee. The attorneys for the “prevailing party” will apply for an award of fees and the court will permit recovery of a reasonable legal fee after considering several factors. Some courts have held that the most important factor in fixing the reasonable legal fee of a “prevailing party” is the “degree of success obtained.”  It follows that a “prevailing party” who achieved only modest success on its claims advanced and relief sought should not recover the same measure of legal fees as a prevailing party who achieved total victory on all claims advanced and requests for relief.

In deference to the American Rule, the courts narrowly construe contracts that provide for recovery of legal fees. In some cases, attorneys have attempted to recover attorney’s fees for their time and effort in making an application for an award of fees. However, the courts have made it clear that legal fees for time and effort incurred in making a legal fee application will not be awarded absent unmistakably clear language in the contract permitting recovery of same.  

Award of Legal Fees Pursuant to Statute

There are statutes in various contexts that provide for an award of attorney’s fees. Like contractual fee shifting provisions, such statutes have been narrowly construed.

With respect to estates and trusts, the fiduciary stands in a unique position. The fiduciary who incurs legal fees in discharging his or her fiduciary responsibilities may pay such fees from the estate (to the extent that they are reasonable and always subject to court review). For example, a nominated executor generally may pay legal fees incurred in seeking the probate of the decedent’s will from the decedent’s estate. Legal fees incurred by an executor or trustee who files a formal judicial accounting with the court seeking approval and discharge, and litigates over objections in the accounting proceeding, are also generally a proper charge to the estate. The Surrogate’s Court considers the following factors in fixing a fiduciary’s attorney’s fees: (1) the time and labor required; (2) the difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill required to handle the problems presented; (3) the lawyer’s experience, ability and reputation; (4) the amount involved and benefit resulting to the client from the services; (5) the customary fee charged by the Bar for similar services; (6) the contingency or certainty of compensation; (7) the results obtained; and, (8) the responsibility involved.

In certain litigations, where a beneficiary’s attorney brings a benefit to the estate, the Surrogate’s Court may grant an award of fees from the estate.

Moreover, as my colleagues, and others, have observed, in certain instances, the Surrogate’s Court may direct the source of payment of legal fees of the fiduciary to beneficiaries or distributees depending on several factors, namely: (1) whether the objecting beneficiary acted solely in his or her own interest or in the common interest of the estate; (2) the possible benefits to the individual beneficiaries from the outcome of the underlying proceeding; (3) the extent of the individual beneficiary’s participation in the proceeding; (4) the good (or bad) faith of the beneficiary; (5) whether there was justifiable doubt regarding the fiduciary’s conduct; (6) the relative interest of the objecting beneficiary in the estate; and (7) the effect of allocating fees on the interest of the individual beneficiary. Thus, where one beneficiary objects to a fiduciary’s administration of the estate, and those objections are without merit, the legal fees incurred in connection with defending such objections may be charged against the objecting beneficiary’s share of the estate.

Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 governs guardianships, and allows for a petitioner’s legal fees to be paid from the assets of the incapacitated person where the petitioner secures the appointment of a guardian for an incapacitated person or otherwise brings a benefit to the incapacitated person (MHL 81.16 [f]). It further allows reasonable legal fees incurred by a movant who succeeds in removing a guardian for cause (MHL 81.35). Further, it permits charging a petitioner with the attorney’s fees incurred by court-appointed counsel for an alleged incapacitated person where the petition is dismissed or withdrawn (MHL 81.10[f]). Like all statutory provisions that provide for an award of legal fees, these provisions are narrowly construed. For example, MHL 81.10 [f] only allows recovery of legal fees of court-appointed counsel for an alleged incapacitated person; the courts have rejected an expansive view of Mental Hygiene Law 81.10 [f] to allow recovery of the legal fees of an alleged incapacitated person’s retained counsel.

Finally, the courts will sometimes shift attorney’s fees and costs as a sanction for frivolous litigation conduct.  Allegations of frivolous litigation conduct have become common to the point of being meaningless – – it has become the standard practice for some attorneys to seek sanctions against parties and attorneys who disagree in good faith on a point of law, or who dare to adduce evidence in defense of a cause of action that contradicts or refutes the allegations forming the basis of that cause of action. However, the courts will occasionally shift fees for truly frivolous litigation conduct.

In two recent decisions, Surrogate Lopez Torres of Kings County denied petitions for guardianship under SCPA Article 17-A, demonstrating the strict circumstances under which guardians are appointed under this particular statute.  SCPA §1750-a applies to persons who are intellectually disabled (as that term has generally been substituted for the archaic term “mental retardation” which appears in the statute) and are permanently or indefinitely incapable of managing his or her own affairs.  The statute requires that the condition be certified by a licensed physician and a licensed psychologist (or two licensed physicians, one of whom is familiar with  or has knowledge of the care and treatment of the disabled person); and that the court is satisfied that appointing a guardian is in the best interests of the disabled person.  Unlike under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law, the court has no discretion or authority to limit or tailor the powers of a guardian under Article 17-A.  Thus, in both proceedings, the court was quite cognizant of the fact that an Article 17-A guardianship is the “most restrictive type of guardianship available” in this State because it “completely removes that individual’s legal right to make decisions over her own affairs and vests the guardian ‘virtually complete power over such individual’” (Proceeding for the Appointment of a Guardian for Michelle M., 2016 NY Slip Op 51114(U) at *3 [Sur Ct., Kings County]).  The potential loss of liberty was the court’s primary concern.

In Proceeding for the Appointment of a Guardian for Michelle M., decided on July 22, 2016, the parents of a 34 year-old diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome petitioned to become their daughter’s guardian, claiming that she was unable to make medical and other decisions regarding her welfare.  The petition contained the requisite certifications, which opined, according to the court, in conclusory fashion, that Michelle was not capable of managing herself or appreciating the nature and consequences of health care decisions.  However, the record revealed that Michelle led an independent life and made her own decisions.  She lived with roommates in an apartment, shopped for and cooked her own food, held a part-time job for six years, managed her own finances, traveled independently, and made and kept her own doctors’ appointments on a regular basis.  In the face of this evidence, the court was particularly concerned with whether appointing a guardian based on the medical certifications “without careful and meaningful inquiry into the individual’s functional capacity, relies on the incorrect assumption that the mere status of intellectual disability provides sufficient basis to wholly remove an individual’s legal right to make decisions for himself” (id. at *4).  The court had no doubt that the petitioners loved and wanted to protect their daughter, but noted that the standard for appointing a guardian was not whether they could make better decisions for Michelle, but rather, whether Michelle had the capacity to make decisions for herself, which was not disputed.

In Estate of Antonio C., NYLJ, July 26, 2016, p. 25, col. 4 (Sur Ct, Kings County), also decided on July 22, 2016, the court’s decision to deny the petition for guardianship over the 66 year-old was seemingly easier.  First, the statutory requirements were not met, as there was no evidence that the respondent’s purported disability was present before he was 22 years old.  Additionally, it appeared to the court that the petitioner had a personal motive for seeking guardianship.  The petitioner was a former boyfriend of the respondent’s sister, and had lived with the respondent for nine months in a New York City Housing Authority apartment.  According to the petitioner, he could not be added to the respondent’s lease unless he became his legal guardian.  Moreover, the evidence adduced at the hearing showed that the respondent could manage his own affairs and possessed essential living skills; he had lived on his own for a period of time before the petitioner moved into his apartment.  Given these factors, the court concluded that a tailored guardianship was more appropriate than the global guardianship under Article 17-A.

As the problem of elder abuse has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, so too has the need to protect elders who suffer abuse, whether physical, mental, or financial, at the hands of the individuals to whom they have entrusted their care and affairs (see Campbell v Thomas, 73 AD3d 103, 104 [2d Dept 2010]). Recent case law demonstrates that elderly individuals can fall prey to their much younger caregivers who secretly marry the elderly in the hopes of benefiting from their estates (see id.; Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883, 883-86 [2d Dept 2010]; Matter of Kaminester, 26 Misc3d 227, 235-37 [Sur Ct, New York County 2009]). For family members who are aware of such abuse, one solution may be to commence an Article 81 guardianship proceeding and to seek to have the marriage revoked by a guardianship court (see Mental Hygiene Law 81.29).

Under Mental Hygiene Law 81.29, an Article 81 guardianship court “may modify, amend, or revoke . . . any contract [including one involving a marriage] made while the person was incapacitated” (see Mental Hygiene Law 81.29). In this regard, the Appellate Division, Second Department, has held that a marriage may be revoked when the evidence shows that one of the parties to the marriage “was ‘incapable of understanding the nature, effect, and consequences of the marriage’” at the time that it occurred (Matter of Joseph S., 25 AD3d 804, 806 [2d Dept 2006]). The factors that the guardianship court considers in determining whether to revoke a marriage include, among other things, the differences in the purported spouses’ ages; whether the spouses cohabited; whether there was a change in residency; whether the spouses wore wedding rings; and whether there is any evidence of financial exploitation of the incapacitated spouse (see Matter of I.I.R., 21 Misc.3d 1136[A], at *2 [Sup Ct, Nassau County 2008]).

Matter of Carmen R. is instructive (see 15 Misc3d 1116[A], at *1-6 [Sup Ct, Westchester County 2007]). There, the petitioner, the alleged incapacitated person’s daughter and duly appointed Temporary Personal Needs Guardian, made an application for the annulment of her eighty-nine year-old mother’s marriage to her fifty-seven year-old chauffeur (see id.).  

At an evidentiary hearing, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Peter J. Rosato heard testimony from, among others, the alleged incapacitated person’s physician, which established that she suffered from severe dementia, among other ailments, and could not understand any marriage ceremony; from the alleged incapacitated person, which demonstrated that she knew her alleged spouse, but could not remember his last name or any marriage to him; and from the alleged incapacitated person’s daughter, which suggested that the alleged spouse concealed the “marriage” from her, evidenced the fact that the alleged spouse was her mother’s chauffer, not her friend, and flatly contradicted the alleged spouse’s claim that he had lived with the incapacitated person for more than a decade (see id.). Justice Rosato also heard testimony from the alleged spouse which demonstrated that the first time he publicly disclosed the marriage was on an immigration application to have his daughter admitted to the United States from Ecuador; that he had been collecting thousands of dollars in rent from the tenants of property owned by the alleged incapacitated person; and that he had previously been arrested for violating a temporary restraining order that prohibited him from having contact with the alleged incapacitated person (see id.).

Based upon the testimony and other evidence before the court, Justice Rosato granted the petitioner’s application for an annulment of the marriage between her mother and the chauffer (see id.). In doing so, Justice Rosato explained that “[i]t [was] abundantly clear, on the evidence adduced upon the hearing held herein, that the [alleged incapacitated person] did not possess the requisite mental capacity to marry” (id.). Justice Rosato also found that the marriage was a product of fraud arising from the purported spouse’s desire to gain entry into this country for his daughter who was living in Ecuador until after the marriage (see id.). Accordingly, Justice Rosato granted the petitioner’s application to annul the marriage (see id.).

Of course, an annulment in the context of an Article 81 proceeding is only feasible where the relatives of an allegedly incapacitated person are aware of the marriage prior to the person’s death. Where the marriage is concealed until after the person dies, however, other remedies may exist outside the context of Article 81 (see Jaclene D’Agostino, “Appellate Division Cites Equitable Factors In Denying Entitlement To Elective Share”)

A recent decision from New York County in which Surrogate Glen denied an Article 17-A guardianship petition, Matter of Chaim, A.K., 8/26/2009 NYLJ 41 (col 1) (Sur Ct, New York County), has clarified the proper use of the proceeding.

The Court began its analysis by distinguishing the characteristics of guardianship proceedings brought pursuant to Article 17-A of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, and those brought under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law. Specifically, the Court held that the Article 17-A proceeding is not necessarily appropriate in all circumstances where an individual has been diagnosed as developmentally disabled or mentally retarded.

Chaim presented facts typical of Article 17-A cases. Parents were petitioning for guardianship of their son who had reached majority and had been diagnosed by two physicians as developmentally disabled. He was unable to make medical decisions for himself. Indeed, both diagnosing physicians submitted affidavits supporting his parents’ application. However, the additional information before the Court, including psychiatric reports demonstrating psychological and emotional problems, led the Surrogate to question whether an Article 17-A guardianship was appropriate.

In her decision, Surrogate Glen explained the many factors that distinguish Article 17-A proceedings from those commenced under Article 81. She noted the following:

  • Article 17-A was originally intended as a vehicle for parents of mentally retarded children to continue to exercise control after the child reached an age of majority, while Article 81 is directed at adults who have lost or diminished capacity; 

  • Article 81 grants no more power to the guardian than is necessary, while Article 17-A does not allow for the court to grant the guardian a particular degree of control over the ward;

  • No hearing is required under Article 17-A, while a hearing is necessary under Article 81, providing the opportunity for cross-examination and independent counsel for the AIP;

  • Article 17-A allows for the discretionary appointment of a guardian ad litem, while Article 81 mandates the appointment of an independent court evaluator;

  • Article 17-A is silent as to burden of proof, whereas Article 81 requires clear and convincing evidence;

  • Article 17-A is largely driven by forms, often providing the court with conclusory statements about the ward’s condition but resulting in ease for applicants who frequently petition pro se, while Article 81 is more complex and thus more likely to require the services of an attorney; and

  • Article 17-A guardians are not required to report to the court with any updates after the appointment, whereas Article 81 guardians must file detailed reports ninety days later and subsequently on an annual basis (id.).

Considering Chaim’s particular situation in light of the “all or nothing” nature of an Article 17-A guardianship, Surrogate Glen denied the Petition and suggested that Article 81 may be more appropriate. Her rationale was that the evidence demonstrated that Chaim’s difficulties were attributable more to mental illness than mental retardation, and thus were likely treatable. As a result, the Court opined that it would be unnecessary and inappropriate to give a guardian complete power over Chaim’s affairs pursuant to Article 17-A. Instead, the Court held that “changes in his circumstances . . . may require altered powers in the guardian or perhaps even, someday, no guardian at all” (id.).

This decision has the potential to significantly change the landscape of guardianship proceedings in Surrogate’s Courts.  It is presently unknown whether Chaim will be the subject of an appeal, but we will keep you informed of any developments.