Judicial oaths require that judges rule on the law, putting their personal feelings aside.  Indeed, judges’ personal opinions are presumed to be non-factors in judicial decision making as judges are charged to uphold the letter of the law regardless of their personal beliefs. The decision in Matter of the Estate of Durcan is a case in point.

Before the Surrogate’s Court, New York County was a petition by James Durcan (“James”), the administrator of the decedent’s estate, seeking the turnover of certain IRA proceeds.   In Durcan, Joan Durcan (the “Decedent”), was survived by two siblings, her brother James, and her sister Mary Anney Cunney (“Cunney”). Following Decedent’s death, Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. (“Merrill Lynch”) distributed the proceeds of four IRA accounts (“Accounts”) owned by Decedent to Cunney.   Shortly thereafter, James petitioned for the turnover of the Account proceeds, claiming that they belonged to Decedent’s estate (the “Estate”).

The Accounts were created by the Decedent in 2002, designating Cunney as the sole beneficiary. In 2014, Decedent sought to have the Accounts transferred from Merrill Lynch to Morgan Stanley. To effectuate the transfer Morgan Stanley sent Decedent certain transfer forms, which she completed and sent back, once again designating Cunney as her one hundred (100%) beneficiary.   Shortly thereafter, additional transfer forms were sent to Decedent, including an IRA Adoption Agreement. The Adoption Agreement included a provision for designating a beneficiary for the new accounts. At his deposition, the Decedent’s financial advisor testified that when discussing the forms with the Decedent, she reiterated her desire to designate Cunney as the sole beneficiary. Decedent died unexpectedly a few days later. Critically, the second set of documents sent by Morgan Stanley, including the beneficiary designations contained in the Adoption Agreement, were neither received by Morgan Stanley nor found among Decedent’s papers. Following Decedent’s death, Morgan Stanley transferred the proceeds of the IRAs, valued at approximately $2 million, to Cunney, as Morgan Stanley recognized Cunney as the beneficiary on the basis of the information provided by Decedent.

Relying on EPTL 13-3.2 (e), James argued that Decedent failed to execute a valid beneficiary designation for her IRAs after the new accounts were opened at Morgan Stanley and, therefore, that the proceeds of each of the accounts should be paid to Decedent’s estate to be distributed among her intestate distributees. Section 13-3.2 specifically requires that a beneficiary designation be made in a writing signed by the person making the designation (id.). The Morgan Stanley transfer documents failed to comply with this requirement.  In her own motion and in opposition to James’s motion, Cunney asked the court to apply the equitable doctrine of substantial compliance and determine that Morgan Stanley’s decision to waive its right to require strict compliance with the beneficiary designation provisions of its IRA Plan should not be disturbed (Durcan, at 4). Surrogate Mella ruled in James’s favor, and directed Cunney and Morgan Stanley to turn over to James, as administrator of Decedent’s estate, the proceeds of the IRAs (id. at 8).

The result in Durcan exemplifies the longstanding belief that it is a judge’s duty to set aside one’s personal feelings so that he or she can blindly administer justice according to the letter of the law. Judges take oaths to uphold the law, regardless of personal beliefs. Faced with this onerous burden, Surrogate Mella “reluctantly conclude[d] that compliance with the statutory requirement that a beneficiary designation be in writing and signed by the designator may not be disregarded  As explained by the Court of Appeals in McCarthy, such requirement is critical to serve the essential goal of preventing the courts and parties from speculating regarding the wishes of the deceased” (id. at 7).

 

A person who executes a valid agreement to make a testamentary disposition as to a specific item of property is precluded from making an alternative disposition, either during lifetime or upon death. This blog post discusses Schwartz v Bourque, 2017 NY Slip Op 31621(U) (Sur Ct, Nassau County June 14, 2017), a recent decision involving an agreement to make a testamentary disposition as to a specific parcel of real property, a later agreement between the same parties concerning that property (that was alleged to have superseded the earlier agreement), and a deed transferring that same property which was contrary to the terms of the earlier agreement, but not the later one. In vacating the deed, Surrogate Reilly engaged in a comprehensive analysis of the applicable rules of contract construction, agreements to make testamentary dispositions, the termination of joint tenancies, and the statutory and case law governing fraudulent conveyances.

Schwartz involved three generations of women in one family and a dispute over title to the real property where they all resided together. The property was initially owned by the Decedent alone. The agreements and deeds Decedent executed concerning that property led to the dispute between her daughter, Brenda, and her granddaughter, Christine (Brenda’s daughter), both individually and as executor of Decedent’s estate.[1]

The 1978 Agreement

Brenda claimed Decedent was unable to pay the carrying charges on the residence which led to Brenda assuming responsibility for those expenses. Brenda’s concern that she had no ownership interest or contractual assurance that she could remain living there, despite her financial investment in the property, led to the execution of an agreement with her mother in 1978 (the “1978 Agreement”). The 1978 Agreement provided that Brenda agreed to pay all carrying charges on the property and, in return, she could reside there as long as she desired. The 1978 Agreement contained a provision whereby Decedent agreed to make a will giving the premises to Brenda in fee simple absolute.

The 1984 Agreement and 1984 Deed

Brenda claimed that, as time passed and her financial stake in the property continued to increase, she was concerned that she did not have any current ownership interest in the property. The Decedent and Brenda executed another agreement in 1984 (the “1984 Agreement”) which provided that in consideration of Brenda’s past payment of carrying charges, and her promise to do so in the future, Decedent would convey one-half of her interest in the property to Brenda. A deed from Decedent to Decedent and Brenda, as joint tenants with right of survivorship, was recorded (the “1984 Deed”).

The 2012 Deed

In 2012, Decedent executed a deed by which she purported to convey her remaining one-half interest in the property to her granddaughter Christine, thereby severing the joint tenancy between Decedent and Brenda that was created by the 1984 Deed.

Did the 1984 Agreement Supersede the 1978 Agreement?

A later contract will not supersede an earlier contract unless either: (1) the later contract contains definitive language reflecting the parties’ intent to supersede the earlier contract or (2) the two contracts deal with precisely the same subject matter (Globe Food Services Corp. v Consolidated Edison Co., 184 AD2d 278 [1st Dept 1992]).

As the 1984 Agreement contained no language expressing an intent to supersede the 1978 Agreement, the only issue was whether the two agreements deal with “precisely” the same subject matter. Christine argued that they do, that being what consideration Decedent would provide Brenda in recognition of Brenda’s past payments towards the residence and her promise to continue those payments. Brenda argued that they do not deal with “precisely” the same subject matter because the 1978 Agreement was intended to assure Brenda that the property would be hers upon Decedent’s death, while the 1984 Agreement was intended to provide Brenda with a current interest in the property without affecting the earlier 1978 Agreement.

The court noted, “[b]oth arguments are plausible but only one can prevail.” Although there was no integration and merger clause and while the two agreements appear to address the same general rights, the Court found, “it is clear that there is nothing that would prevent the two agreements from coexisting or working in tandem.” The Court found the 1978 Agreement is clearly a contract to make a testamentary disposition and satisfies all the criteria necessary to establish an enforceable agreement, that is, the agreement is in writing and subscribed by the party to be charged (EPTL § 13-2.1[a]). Moreover, the 1978 Agreement identifies the specific property that is to be the subject of the testamentary disposition, thereby precluding Decedent from making an alternate disposition, either during lifetime or upon death.

The Surrogate then proceeded to analyze Brenda’s arguments in support of her summary judgment motion.

Breach of Contact Claims

As to Brenda’s cause of action for Decedent’s breach of the 1978 Agreement, the Court found the proof established all of the elements, except as to Brenda’s performance. Because Brenda offered no proof in admissible form that she complied with her obligations under that contact (i.e., paying all expenses associated with the upkeep of the premises), the Court denied summary judgment.

As to Brenda’s cause of action for Decedent’s breach of the 1984 Agreement, the Court noted while Decedent transferred 50% of her interest in the property to Brenda under that contract, it is silent regarding Decedent’s other 50% interest. Although the 1984 Deed conveyed the property to Decedent and Brenda “as joint tenants with right of survivorship”, such a conveyance did not constitute a promise not to sever the joint tenancy. The Court noted Real Property Law § 240-c provides to the contrary and allows a joint tenancy to be terminated by a deed that conveys legal title to the severing joint tenant’s interest to a third person. Thus, the Court found if the 2012 Deed to Christine is a breach of contract, it is of the 1978 Agreement, not the 1984 Agreement.

The Fraudulent Conveyance Claims

Brenda alleged Decedent’s making of the 2012 Deed, and Christine’s acceptance of that deed, constituted a breach of the 1978 Agreement and sought the application of Debtor and Creditor Law §§ 275 and 276 to vacate the deed.

Debtor and Creditor Law § 275 provides:

“Every conveyance made and every obligation incurred without fair consideration when the person making the conveyance or entering into the obligation intends or believes that he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay as they mature, is fraudulent as to both present and future creditors.”

The Court noted that where a transfer is made without consideration, as was true of the 2012 Deed, a rebuttable presumption arises of insolvency and a fraudulent transfer, thereby placing the burden on the transferee, Christine, to overcome the presumption.

Debtor and Creditor Law § 276 provides:

“Every conveyance made and every obligation incurred with actual intent, as distinguished from intent presumed in law, to hinder, delay, or defraud either present or future creditors, is fraudulent as to both present and future creditors.”

As to the actual fraudulent intent contemplated by that statute, courts recognize the difficulty of proving actual fraudulent intent and permit the pleader to rely on “badges of fraud” (Wall Street Assoc. v Brodsky, 257 AD2d 526, 529 (1st Dept 1999). Among these “badges of fraud” are: a close relationship between the parties to the transfer; inadequate or no consideration; the transferor’s knowledge of the creditor’s claim; and retention of the property by the transferor after the conveyance (id.).

The Court found Decedent and her granddaughter Christine had a close family relationship; the conveyance was without consideration; the 2012 Deed was executed days after Brenda filed her original complaint evincing that Decedent was aware of Brenda’s claim when the transfer was made; and Decedent continued to reside in the property after the conveyance to Christine. The Surrogate noted that the only explanation given for the transfer is that Decedent had the right to do so. Thus, defendants failed to offer any legitimate explanation for the conveyance, rendering the defendants’ actual fraudulent intent “readily inferable” (Machado v A. Canterpass, LLC, 115 AD3d 652, 654 [2d Dept 2014]).

Significantly, as an exception to the so-called “American Rule” on attorneys’ fees, where intent to defraud under Debtor and Creditor Law § 276 has been established, Debtor Creditor Law § 276-a provides an award of attorneys’ fees to plaintiff against defendants which the Court granted.

Thus, although Brenda did not succeed in vacating the 2012 Deed based upon a breach of the 1978 Agreement to make a testamentary disposition, she succeeded in doing so based upon the fraudulent conveyance causes of action which resulted in her being awarded counsel fees, relief she may not have received based upon the breach of contract claim.

 

[1] Brenda commenced the action in Supreme Court during Decedent’s lifetime and it was transferred to the Surrogate’s Court following Decedent’s death.

This month’s blog post will address a recent decision by the Appellate Division, First Department, entered in In re Perelman, that helps reiterate and define the parameters of discovery proceedings. The case is interesting not only for its facts and the issues they presented, but for its litigants: Ronald Perelman, of Revlon and corporate raider fame, and James Cohen, the President and CEO of Hudson News, and President of Hudson Enterprises.         

The Decedent, Claudia Cohen, a well-known gossip columnist at the time of her death, was the sister of James Cohen, and was Ronald Perelman’s former spouse. She died on June 15, 2007, with an estate amounting to approximately $68 million, survived by her daughter, Samantha, who was her sole surviving heir. Pursuant to the terms of her Will, Claudia, after making some specific bequests, left the residue of her estate to her daughter, in trust, until a stated age, and appointed Mr. Perelman, who was Samantha’s father, as the executor and trustee thereunder.

James and Claudia Cohen were the children of Robert and Harriet Cohen. Robert died several years after Claudia, in 2012, and Harriet is still living. Over the course of his life, Robert amassed a considerable fortune through his ownership and control of a number of family businesses, including Hudson News. James participated in these family businesses for his entire career.

In June 2010, Perelman commenced a discovery proceeding against James Cohen, his two sons, Justin and Robert II, Hudson News Company, and Robert Cohen, seeking information and a turnover of assets allegedly belonging to the Estate of the decedent within the knowledge, possession and/or control of the Respondents. Subsequent to the filing of his initial petition, Perelman amended his pleading in order to, more specifically, assert claims against James Cohen for fraud and undue influence in effectuating transfers of Robert Cohen’s business interests to himself to the detriment of his sister, Claudia, and her estate. The Amended Petition sought, amongst other things, to recover any interest of Claudia in one or more of the various Cohen family businesses, including but not limited to Hudson News, which may have been misappropriated by James.

It is significant that the amended petition failed to identify any specific property that Claudia owned at the time of her death that was being withheld by the Respondents, or any specific property that was converted from her by the Respondents. Rather, it was predicated upon Perelman’s supposition that Claudia owned an interest in the Hudson News group, based upon the allegations against James Cohen, and his desire to test that belief through an examination of the books and records of the company.

It is worth noting that the discovery proceeding came at the heels of multiple proceedings that had been instituted by Perelman in his fiduciary capacity against members of the Cohen family in the New Jersey State and Federal courts, all of which he lost. It is also important to note that in the context of the foregoing litigation, Perelman sought and obtained discovery of more than 2.1 million pages of documents, and conducted 30 depositions. That discovery revealed that the only interest Claudia had owned in the family business during her lifetime was .36% of 1 share of stock of Hudson News, which she sold in 1990.

The Respondents moved to dismiss the Amended Petition arguing that Perelman’s claims were barred by documentary evidence, and on the basis of the statute of limitations, res judicata and collateral estoppel. More specifically, the Respondents claimed that the unequivocal documentary proof established that the Decedent sold her entire interest in Hudson News in 1990, and owned no interest in any other Cohen family business at death. Further, they alleged that SCPA 2103 did not permit an unbridled search for unknown and unidentified assets based on nothing more than a surmise and a possibility that the Decedent may have owned those assets.

Perelman, nevertheless, maintained that he was entitled and duty-bound as fiduciary to determine, amongst other things, whether Claudia transferred her entire interest in Hudson News and was paid in full for that transfer, and whether she held any interest in any of her family’s other businesses. Further, Perelman maintained that SCPA 2103 has been broadly construed so as to allow a “fishing expedition” in order to assist the fiduciary in recovering property or administering an estate.

In an opinion and Order, dated February 15, 2015, the Surrogate’s Court, amongst other things, denied the motion to dismiss finding that the documentary evidence left unresolved questions as to the interest of the Decedent in Hudson News and Hudson Enterprises, that dismissal on the basis of the statute of limitations was premature, since the Amended Petition did not identify a time when any alleged wrong occurred, and that the executor had a responsibility to marshal the decedent’s assets and the right to conduct discovery to satisfy himself and the beneficiaries that he diligently attempted to ascertain the scope of those assets.

Finally, the Court rejected the Respondents’ res judicata and collateral estoppel claims holding that the issues raised by the New Jersey litigation were distinct from those raised in the New York proceedings. An appeal followed.

Although the appeal addressed multiple issues, one of the principal issues was whether SCPA 2103 discovery is tantamount to a fishing expedition, or something more limited in scope.

The Respondents maintained that while discovery pursuant to SCPA 2103 is often labeled a “fishing expedition”, the authorities did not consider it to be a fishing expedition with an unlimited license. Rather, they argued that a discovery proceeding only lies where it is alleged that it relates to specific personal property or money or the value or the proceeds thereof.

On the basis of the foregoing, Respondents claimed that Perelman was simply on a mission to open up the books and records of Hudson News and its related entities rather than pursue estate assets, which he knew did not exist.

Moreover, to this extent, Respondents argued that the documentary evidence (consisting, in part, of the Shareholders Agreement for Hudson News, the decedent’s tax returns, and the balance sheet from her 1993 divorce from Perelman) unequivocally established that the Decedent sold her entire interest consisting of .36% of 1 share in Hudson in 1990, and that she had no other interest at death in the enterprise.

Perelman, on the other hand, argued SCPA 2103 affords a party broad latitude to explore a Decedent’s assets, tantamount to a fishing expedition. Given this scope, it was Perelman’s contention that the burden rested on the Respondent’s to show that regardless of what information might be elicited in discovery, it was inconceivable that the examination could lead to any information that would assist the fiduciary in recovering or administering estate assets.

To this extent, Perelman maintained that the documentary evidence failed to satisfy this burden.

The Appellate Division rejected Perelman’s argument, unanimously reversed the order of the Surrogate, and dismissed Perelman’s claim for discovery.

Notably, on the issue of 2103 discovery, the Court iterated and reminded us all that a fiduciary seeking discovery pursuant to the statute cannot go on an unabridged fishing expedition to search for assets of an undefined nature that he has a hunch belongs to the estate.

Rather, citing the decision in Matter of Castaldo, 180 AD2d 421 (1st Dept. 1992) the Court held that a fiduciary invoking the statute must demonstrate the existence of specific personal property or money which belongs to the estate, or even a reasonable likelihood that such specific property might exist.

Significantly, in this regard, the court held that, in light of the documentary evidence submitted by Respondents, Perelman had failed to satisfy his burden of establishing that the Decedent may have held an interest in the family business after the sale of her stock in 1990. The Court found that Perelman’s contentions that she did hold such an interest were speculative at best.

Perelman made a motion for leave to appeal this result to the Court of Appeals, which application was denied, with costs.

So, at least from the First Department’s perspective, and perhaps the perspective of the Court of Appeals, we are seemingly left with the lesson that unless a petition for SCPA 2103 discovery seeks specific property or money that is in the possession or knowledge of a Respondent, or with reasonable likelihood is in the possession or knowledge of the respondent, the proceeding must be dismissed.

New York’s “slayer rule” essentially provides that if an individual kills another person, he has automatically forfeited any interest he may have had in his victim’s estate.  The rationale is simple – no one should financially benefit from his own crime. 

As we have explained in prior posts, this longstanding rule was never codified in New York, but is a common law principle emanating from the nineteenth century Court of Appeals decision in Riggs v Palmer, 115 NY 506 (1889). There, a grandson who intentionally killed his grandfather to ensure his inheritance, was barred from profiting from his own wrong. 

Applicability of the rule is generally straightforward, but in certain cases, the lines can become blurred — such as in Matter of Edwards, 2014 NY Slip Op 05873 (2d Dept 2014), where the killer sought to inherit from his victim only indirectly, through the estate of the victim’s post-deceased daughter. 

The facts of Edwards are somewhat complex.  Brandon Palladino pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the death of his mother-in-law, Dianne Edwards.  Brandon’s wife, Deanna, was Dianne’s only child, and the sole beneficiary of her estate.  Less than a year after Dianne’s death, Deanna died, intestate, from an accidental drug overdose.  Brandon was Deanna’s sole distributee.  Accordingly, Brandon stood to inherit his victim’s entire estate indirectly, through his wife’s estate.

In a 2012 decision, Suffolk County Surrogate John M. Czygier, Jr., opined that the slayer rule should be extended upon equitable principles to prohibit Brandon from inheriting in this manner.  Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed. 

Acknowledging that this was a case of first impression, the Second Department was guided largely by its decision in Campbell v Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010).  There, the court held that a surviving spouse forfeited her elective share by her own wrongdoing, having knowingly taken advantage of the decedent in a deathbed marriage for her own pecuniary gain. Although none of the statutory disqualification provisions of EPTL 5-1.2 applied to that situation, the court relied upon principles of equity in making its determination.

The Second Department also relied upon an Illinois case that presented facts analogous to those in Edwards.  In In re Estate of Vallerius, 259 Ill App 3d 350 (5th Dist 1994), the decedent was murdered by two of her grandsons.  Their mother post-deceased mere months later, leaving them as her only heirs.  The Illinois court held that the grandsons could not indirectly benefit from their own crime by inheriting the murdered grandmother’s estate through their mother’s estate, and explained that an intervening estate “should not expurgate the wrong of the murderer or thwart the intent of the legislature that the murderer not profit by his wrong.” 

Notably, in upholding Surrogate Czygier’s extension of the slayer rule, the Second Department rejected arguments that (1) Deanna’s inheritance vested immediately in her upon her mother’s death, allowing her to do what she wished with the property, and (2) extension of the slayer rule would raise “a host of enforceability problems” — for example, if the intervening estate resulted from a death that occurred a decade after the wrongful death or murder. The Court explained that it was unpersuaded by hypothetical scenarios and noted that the rule, as extended, would be applied on a fact-specific basis. 

In sum, the Second Department opined that Edwards was on point with both Campbell and Vallerius in that there was “a clear causal link between the wrongdoing and the benefits sought.”  Accordingly, it affirmed the Surrogate’s Court’s decision to exercise its equitable powers in extending the slayer rule to this case (see SCPA 201[2]).

A donor writes in a pledge amount, signs the pledge card, hands it over to the charity, and is absolutely committed to that amount; end of story, right?  Not necessarily.  A recent case emanating from Kings County Surrogate’s Court, Matter of Kramer, N.Y.L.J. April 21, 2014, p. 24 (col. 6), shows that certain charitable pledges may not be as binding as they appear on paper.  The case provides an excellent primer on the operation of specific charitable pledges under the theory of unilateral contracts, and serves as a stark reminder to charities that to have the right to enforce a pledge that they must do more than just secure a signature on a pledge card.  The case also underscores to estate administrators the importance of scrutinizing and potentially challenging seemingly credible claims against an estate.

Kramer involved a motion by a charity, Educational Institute Oholei Torah-Oholei Menachem, for summary judgment dismissing objections to its petition to determine the validity and enforceability of its claim against the estate of Isaac Kramer.  The charity’s claim was based upon a pledge card and promissory note, in the face amount of $1,800,000, allegedly signed by the decedent approximately a year and a half before his death, and ostensibly payable six months prior to the decedent’s death.  The pledge was allegedly given for the purpose of supporting a building campaign proposed by the charity to construct a new ritualarium, or mikveh, for use of the charity’s members.  No payment on the pledge had been made by the decedent or demanded by the charity prior to the decedent’s death.  Representatives of the charity claimed they consciously withheld demands for payment because of the decedent’s illness shortly before his death.

Objections to the charity’s petition were filed by each of the Kings County Public Administrator, as fiduciary of the decedent’s estate, and four additional groups representing various purported testamentary legatees and distributees.  The respective objections raised multiple theories for rejection of, and affirmative defenses against, the charity’s claim including (i) forgery of the decedent’s signature, (ii) lack of due execution, (iii) lack of consideration, (iv) lapse upon the decedent’s death, (v) laches and unclean hands, (vi) expiration of the statute of limitations, (vii) fraudulent inducement, and (viii) the decedent’s lack of capacity.  Upon the charity’s summary judgment motion, two of the respondents cross moved for summary judgment upon an additional theory of the charity’s failure to demonstrate acceptance of the pledge by taking action in reliance thereon.

The Court granted the charity’s motion for summary judgment concerning the objections based upon lack of due execution, laches, unclean hands, expiration of the statute of limitations, and fraudulent inducement, because none of the respondents supported or addressed these objections in their responsive papers.  Thus, these objections were deemed abandoned.  The Court also found that no triable issue of fact was raised concerning the decedent’s capacity, and that the burden of proving the decedent’s incompetence was not met.  Accordingly, the charity’s motion for summary judgment was granted concerning the objections based upon capacity.  The charity also prevailed concerning objections based upon forgery of the decedent’s signature, as the Court found that the handwriting analysis report raised no triable issue of fact concerning its genuineness.

The final objection considered by the Court, lack of consideration, however, turned out to be dispositive against the charity.  It was clear from the facts and on the face of the pledge that it was made in furtherance of a specific purpose, namely a building project, rather than for the charity’s general educational and religious work.  As such, the Court noted that the pledge must be examined under the theory of a unilateral contract.  Under this theory, the signed pledge card is not the contract itself, but merely an offer to make a contract which the charity must then accept by taking action in reliance upon the offer.  The pledge, then, will not become binding until the charity has sufficiently acted upon the pledge so as to incur liability on the part of the donor. 

The Court stated that it has been the “noted policy of the courts to sustain the validity of subscription agreements whenever a counter promise of the donee can be sustained from the actions of the parties or it can be demonstrated that any legal detriment has been sustained by the promise in reliance upon the promised gift.”  For instance, charitable subscriptions have been deemed enforceable where the donee has made some substantive progress towards the charitable goal for which the pledge was made.  This would include starting construction, employing architects and paying for plans, raising additional pledges based upon the disputed pledge, or taking on a construction loan for the project.  The donor’s partial payment of the pledge, whether alone or in conjunction with concrete action on the part of the charity, has also been deemed sufficient to indicate acceptance of the unilateral contract.

Despite this broad policy in favor of enforcement, the charity in Kramer was unable to meet the burden to show that it had meaningfully acted in reliance upon the pledge.  Indeed, it was undisputed that no actual construction had begun on the proposed building project.  Nor was there any specific date upon which construction was to begin, or any reasonable timeframe for completion of the project.  The Court characterized the construction project as more of a “hoped-for occurrence” than an actual plan.  Moreover, despite its claims to the contrary, the charity could not prove that it had expended any sums of money on any construction related expenses, such as soil samples or architectural plans.  Nor could the charity produce any contracts or engagement letters from architects, engineers, or contractors.  There was also no proof of building permit or zoning applications.  Finally, though the charity claimed to have used the decedent’s pledge to solicit other pledges, no independent evidence of receipt or fulfillment of such additional pledges was offered.  In sum, the Court found that the charity had done nothing meaningful or substantive in reliance on the decedent’s pledge.  Thus, the charity’s motion for summary judgment on the consideration issue was denied and the cross-motions dismissing the charity’s petition were granted.

 The Kramer case should serve as a useful guide for charities in satisfying the requirements for establishing enforceability of specific charitable pledges.  It also gives estate administrators helpful factors to look for when challenging charitable pledges