It is easy to be cynical about the “pots and pans,” “tchotchkes,” and “junk” – – the property that is often divided in a contentious manner at the bitter end of an estate litigation, or sometimes forgotten after years of litigation. An ongoing dispute in one of my cases led me to reflect on a New York Times piece by Annie Correal, which explores a very personal account of the Great Migration through a discarded item of what estate lawyers might call “personalty” or “tangible personal property” – – a photo album. The photo album belonged to the late Etta Mae Taylor, and through good fortune, it caught the eye of a journalist before it could be collected by DSNY. The story is remarkable. While Etta Mae Taylor’s photo album may not be of tremendous pecuniary value, it is arguably a treasure of a different sort.

 

Etta Mae Taylor’s photo album may cause some reflection about our own personal effects, whether they are of pecuniary value, sentimental value, or both.  Ms. Taylor’s photo album is also an invitation to a mundane but perhaps useful discussion about tangible personal property in the law of trusts and estates.

 

What does “tangible personal property” mean? It depends. It generally means furniture, clothing, household goods, tools, jewelry, antiques, and other like personal effects. However, it can be up for interpretation. Quite often, wills and trusts dispose of personal effects with a general provision similar to the following:

 

I bequeath to Jane Doe all personal effects, household effects, automobiles, and other tangible personal property, whether located as at present at 40 Park Avenue, New York, NY, or elsewhere, at the time of my demise.

 

In an oft-cited case, the Surrogate’s Court held that cash in a safe deposit box did not fall within the definition of a tangible personal property in the face of the foregoing provision. As the Court explained “cash is not ordinarily thought of as ‘tangible personal property’ and here, under the familiar doctrine of ejusdem generis, the words ‘tangible personal property’ should be limited to property of the same or similar character as that described by the preceding words, to wit, personal effects, household effects and automobiles.”

 

What about a valuable stamp collection? Reggie Jackson’s rookie card? Fine art? Etc. . . Sometimes, the testator is detailed – – you will see a provision similar to the following:

 

I bequeath my jewelry, silverware, furs, leather goods, china, and any art to Jane Doe, if she shall survive me, and all my other tangible personal property shall be distributed to my children, in equal shares, or all to the survivor. If none of my children shall survive me or shall not desire any such property, I authorize my Executor to sell such property at such time or times, at such prices and on such terms as he or she shall deem advisable and to distribute the net proceeds of sale thereof as part of my residuary estate. However, my Executor shall be empowered to retain for the benefit of my children and any other family members any item of such property deemed to have a personal, a family or sentimental character such as pictures, memorabilia, keepsakes or the like, and he or she shall distribute such property among my children and any other family members at such time or times and in such proportions as he or she shall, in his or her sole and absolute discretion, deem advisable.

 

A fairly recent, and again, oft-cited and discussed decision of the Bronx County Surrogate’s Court, Estate of Rothschild, illustrates why specificity and clarity might avoid wasteful estate litigation. There, the petitioner received a bequest of tangible personal property pursuant to the following provision:

 

I give all of my tangible personal property (other than currency) including without limitation, wearing apparel, personal effects, jewelry, furniture, furnishings, pictures, paintings and other objects of art, silver, china, glassware and other household effects, books and automobiles to my wife, or if she does not survive me, to [the petitioner]. . .

 

The petitioner maintained that the decedent’s collections of stamps, platinum, gold, and silver coins (worth millions of dollars) passed to her under the foregoing provision as “tangible personal property.” Petitioner relied on a New York case, where the court held that collections of medallions, stamps and coins were “tangible personal property.”

 

The Bronx County Surrogate’s Court ruled against the petitioner, holding that the decedent’s collections were not items of “tangible personal property” that passed to the petitioner, but rather were residuary assets. The Court explained that “tangible personal property” is generally understood and construed “as being limited to tangible property having an intimate relation to the testator and ordinarily used by him.” It distinguished the principal case that petitioner relied upon – – in that case there was a disposition of tangible personal property “of every kind” (expansive language), while the foregoing will provision contained the language “and other household effects” (limiting language). The Court held that the tangible personal property identified in the will did not embrace items beyond the kind of household effects that the decedent used on a daily basis, and that the decedent’s collections were of a different character of property.

 

Notably, the disposition of valuable tangible personal property of the kind encountered in Rothschild could have a drastic effect on estate tax apportionment in a taxable estate. If the will directs against apportionment, and provides that estate tax is to paid from decedent’s residuary estate, and a tremendously valuable tangible item is disposed of as a pre-residuary bequest of “tangible personal property” (perhaps contrary to decedent’s true wishes), the residuary estate could be significantly depleted by estate tax, perhaps even leading to an interrelated computation.   The tax allocation clause can sometimes be a very important provision in a will – – as illustrated in another blog post – – and perhaps in further blog posts.

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.

thatIn some will contests, lawyers will speculate that the decedent may have misled people as to his true estate plan, either out of weakness, to keep the peace, to measure reactions, to avoid uncomfortable conversations, and perhaps, sadly, intending to cause pain and disappointment. When this happens, it may be easier, for example, for a son to believe that his sister was responsible for subverting their mother’s wishes than to even approach the idea that his mother was not being truthful when she told him that he would receive “everything.” Bitter litigation is often the result. We can speculate that there may have been a bit of that going on with the parties involved in Gersh v. Nixon Peabody LLP, 2017 NY Slip Op 30363(U), (Sup Ct, New York County 2017), outside of the context of a will contest.

Decedent’s surviving spouse was the Plaintiff in Gersh, suing individually, and as executor of Decedent’s estate, for legal malpractice against Nixon Peabody LLP. She alleged that the firm committed malpractice in rendering planning services to her and to the Decedent, who jointly retained the Nixon firm in 2003. At that time, the Decedent — married for the third time, some forty years after his divorce from his first wife — decided to create a will and amend an existing revocable trust. When he did so, his obligations to the children of his first marriage under a separation agreement were seemingly unaccounted for in his estate plan.

Decedent and his first wife had two children, Laurie and Ellynn. The couple entered into a separation agreement 1963. The agreement provided that if the first wife survived Decedent, and if Laurie and Ellynn had reached the age of 21 at the time of Decedent’s death, then Decedent was obligated to leave 50% of his estate in trust for the first wife, with the remainder passing to Laurie and Ellynn upon their mother’s death. This provision is not a model of clarity. For example – – what are the terms of this “trust”? What is this separation agreement referring to when it refers to Decedent’s “estate”? Is it the Decedent’s probate estate? Or the Decedent’s net estate for estate tax purposes? Or something else?

If the Decedent had wanted his surviving spouse to receive all of his wealth despite the separation agreement, he could have employed trusts, life insurance, beneficiary designations, lifetime transfers and gifts, and other mechanisms to, at the very least, reduce what his first wife and children would receive . Arguably, it was possible to plan around the separation agreement, and for the Decedent to ensure that his surviving spouse received all of his assets, and that his first wife and Laurie and Ellynn received nothing. However, no such planning was done.

The Decedent died in 2014, and it appears that he died with a substantial probate estate. The Decedent’s first wife died shortly thereafter, and their children, Laurie and Ellynn, promptly claimed that they were entitled to 50% of their father’s estate pursuant to the separation agreement. Their claim against the Decedent’s estate ultimately settled for $2.367 million.

After compromising the claim, Plaintiff sued the Nixon firm. She alleged that the Nixon firm was aware that the Decedent had been divorced twice, but nevertheless neglected to perform a proper inquiry and investigation to determine the existence of the separation agreement. She maintained that the Nixon firm committed legal malpractice because it never inquired about or obtained a copy of the agreement, and never informed her and the Decedent that the Decedent’s first wife and children had a potential claim to as much as 50% of his estate. She further alleged that the Nixon firm did not provide her and the Decedent with advice to reduce exposure to such a claim in order to fulfill the Decedent’s wish to leave virtually all of his assets to Plaintiff. She claimed that if the Nixon firm had done so, the Decedent would have taken appropriate steps in planning and that she would have received the $2 million-plus that was paid to Laurie and Ellynn in settlement of their claim.

Examining Plaintiff’s claim on a motion to dismiss, the Court observed that it was undisputed that the Decedent was aware of the separation agreement at all relevant times, and that the Decedent did not inform the Nixon firm of the existence of the separation agreement. Citing well-settled law, the Court held that an attorney cannot be held liable for legal malpractice for failing to disclose facts already known to the client. Moreover, the Court held that even assuming that the Nixon firm had a duty to investigate separation agreements attendant to the Decedent’s prior marriages, and advise as to the effect of same, and was negligent in failing to do so, that Plaintiff could only speculate that this negligence was the proximate cause of her loss in the settlement paid to Laurie and Ellynn. Citing the familiar case of Leff v. Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, 78 AD3d 531 (1st Dept 2010), the Court held that Plaintiff’s assertions as to what Decedent would have done had he received advice concerning the effect of the separation agreement on his estate plan were speculative and insufficient to support a legal malpractice claim.

In Gersh, it may have been that the Decedent had some sense of obligation to his first wife and Laurie and Ellynn. He may have known full well that his first wife and/or children might make a claim for 50% of his estate when he was working with the Nixon firm on his estate plan. He may have decided that it would be easier to let his first wife and children make a claim against his estate rather than talk to his wife about how he wanted to leave them something out of a sense of obligation. He may have wished to avoid a conversation, or a series of excruciating conversations, with his wife about whether and to what extent his children should receive assets upon his death. On the other hand, perhaps Decedent relished the idea of a fight between his surviving spouse and his first wife and children after his passing and his estate plan was so designed. Even if the Nixon firm had enlightened him as to the effect that the separation agreement would have had on his estate plan, he might have opted to do nothing. We can only speculate.

Very often, when the proponent of a will (and sometimes even the attorney-draftsperson or witness) is questioned about the decedent’s mental state and the decedent’s instructions, the reflexive response is that the decedent was “as sharp as a tack” and was “as clear as a bell.”  But making a will is not “splitting the atom.”  In fact, testamentary capacity has been described recently by the New York County Surrogate’s Court as “the lowest acceptable level of cognitive ability required by law.”  Overselling a decedent’s capacity and clarity of communication using tired metaphors may result in the trier of fact becoming suspicious of the proponent, perhaps perceiving the proponent as dishonest where other evidence reveals that the decedent likely had diminished capacity.

The Basics

In a will contest, the proponent has the burden of proving that the decedent had the capacity to make a will. This burden is often easily established, as a testator is generally presumed to be of sound mind and to have sufficient mental capacity to execute a valid will.  The proponent must show that the testator understood the nature and extent of her property, knew the natural objects of her bounty, and the contents of her will.  Age, illness, or hospitalization are not determinative – one can suffer from physical weakness and infirmity, a disease of the mind, and failing memory and still possess testamentary capacity at the time of the execution of the will.

A Recent Illustration

A recent decision from Kings County Surrogate’s Court in the Estate of Eleanor Martinico, 2014-3403, NYLJ 1202770885618, at *1 (Sur Ct, Kings County 2016), provides some illustration.  There, the decedent, age 83, executed her will while hospitalized – – she was admitted to the hospital nine days prior to the execution.  A form in her hospital records completed by staff, entitled “Adult Patient Without Capacity With Surrogate for DNR [Do No Resuscitate] Order,” stated, “I have determined that the patient lacks capacity to make this decision,” by reason of “dementia.”  Other medical records stated that the decedent became confused and disoriented during dialysis on the day that she was admitted, and suggested that the decedent had periods of confusion.

However, the attesting witnesses to the decedent’s will were both attorneys who knew the decedent for several years. One knew the decedent for approximately 15 years, had represented her in several matters, and found her demeanor during the propounded instrument’s execution consistent with his prior interactions with her as a person of sound mind acting on her own volition. The witnesses both averred that the decedent, was of “sound and disposing mind, memory and understanding, competent to make a will, free of restraint, and not suffering from any defects which would affect her capacity to make a will.”  Further, decedent’s medical records on the date of the execution of the will contained notes indicating that she was alert and oriented to person, place, and time.

This case did not make it to trial. The court, on a motion for summary judgment, held that the objectants failed to proffer evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time of the execution of the propounded instrument.

Another Illustration

In another widely cited case from the Kings County Surrogate’s Court, Estate of Gallagher, NYLJ, Oct. 19, 2007, at 19, 2007 NY Misc LEXIS 7639 (Sur. Ct. Kings County), the testator, in her eighties, made her will two years after suffering from a traumatic debilitating stroke, and only a few months before the Supreme Court adjudicated her an incapacitated person under New York’s Mental Hygiene Law Article 81.  Following the Article 81 hearing, the Supreme Court found that the decedent was suffering from organic brain syndrome and dementia, could not express herself verbally, and was, at times, greatly disoriented. The Supreme Court held that she required one-on-one attention, in a medically assisted supervised home.

The will was offered for probate upon the decedent’s death, and on a motion and cross-motion for summary judgment the Surrogate’s Court held the issue of testamentary capacity should go to a jury. On the motions, the proponent submitted that the testimony of the attorney-draftsperson, a subscribing witness, and affidavits of witnesses who stated that the decedent was able to converse normally, was able to understand her surroundings and act appropriately, and frequently mentioned her trips and interactions with the proponent.  Additionally, the Court Evaluator in the Article 81 proceeding affirmed that the decedent was able to communicate and identified her signature on the will.  The objectants submitted evidence from the Article 81 guardianship proceeding and the testimony of a treating physician that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity.

Sharp as a Tack?

Not everyone is as “sharp as a tack,” or has the gift of making every communication “as clear as a bell” – – even in the prime of their life.  Reflexively insisting that an octogenarian, who suffered from periods of confusion, with a diagnosed illness of the mind, who could not communicate verbally, was “as sharp as a tack,” and “as clear as a bell,” is unnecessary, and could be untruthful and backfire.  Ultimately, if the issue of testamentary capacity is presented to a jury, the learned and ponderous musings of lawyers expressed in law reviews, CLE materials, journals, treatises, and yes, blogs, will yield to the opinions of six citizens, some of whom might be suspicious upon hearing that an elderly person suffering from dementia who executed her will in the hospital was, at the time, “as sharp as a tack.”

Having examined countless witnesses in probate and other contested Surrogate’s Court proceedings, many of us have grown accustomed to learning that critical documents were destroyed by a “flood.”  That flood, almost invariably, occurred “in the basement.”  The flood narrative is met with the usual inquiry into the cause of the flood, the property destroyed in the flood, the insurance claim made in the wake of the flood, the whereabouts of the paperwork associated with the insurance claim resulting from the flood, etc.  Extracting electronic data as part of the e-discovery process has minimized the loss of potentially probative documents as a result of the basement flood.   An article in the latest New York State Bar Journal by David Paul Horowitz discusses how electronic disclosure issues featured prominently in a recent Erie County probate proceeding.

E-discovery issues aside, a recent case decided by the Richmond County Surrogate revisits the law pertaining to probating lost or damaged wills.  In Matter of Larsen, N.Y.L.J., Aug. 5, 2016, p.32 (Sur. Ct., Richmond Co.), the decedent’s will, apparently damaged in a flooded basement to the extent that the signatures thereon were washed clean, was admitted to probate.  While there is nothing extraordinary about the case, it illustrates the approach and analysis employed by the courts when addressing whether a lost or destroyed will ought to be admitted to probate.

The decedent took receipt of his original will from his attorney, and placed it in his  personal safe in the basement of his home along with other important papers.  The floodwaters then enveloped his safe.  According to the proponent, both he and the decedent believed that the safe was waterproof and thus, neither he, nor the decedent, checked the contents of the safe after the flood.  When the decedent died, the proponent opened the safe to retrieve the will and discovered the water damaged will affixed with rusty staples.  The signature pages contained indentations of pen markings where the signatures apparently once appeared but had been washed clean.

The proponent offered a conformed copy of the decedent’s will, which was in the possession of the attorney draftsperson, together with the original water damaged document for probate.  The attesting witnesses provided affidavits as to due execution with the probate petition.

The Court examined SCPA 1407, which provides that a lost or destroyed will may be admitted to probate only if (1) it is established that the will has not been revoked, and (2) execution of the will is proved in the manner required for the probate of an existing will, and (3) all of the provisions of the will are clearly and distinctly proved by each of at least two credible witnesses or by a copy or draft of the will proved to be true and complete.

Under the circumstances presented, the court found that the decedent never intended to revoke his will.  According to the court, the decedent’s act of placing the will in his waterproof safe and never checking on the condition of the contents of the safe even after the flood, pointed to the decedent’s continued desire in maintaining his testamentary plan as set forth in the will.  The court was satisfied by the conformed copy and the affidavits of the attesting witness that the will was duly executed.  The court was further satisfied that the fact that decedent’s will was found in his safe with all of his other important documents clearly established that he did not intend to revoke his will, but rather that the original will was damaged with the decedent’s other personal possessions.  The will was admitted to probate.

Keep in mind here that the proponent in Larsen was the decedent’s sole distributee, and the proceeding appears to have been uncontested.  The decision does not mention the decedent’s testamentary plan as set forth in the damaged will, and does not mention the potential existence of prior testamentary instruments benefiting persons potentially adversely affected by the propounded instrument.  The Dead Man’s Statute and other potential impediments to the propounded will being admitted to probate were not factors in this case.

A recent decision of the Richmond County Surrogate’s Court addressed a frequently litigated issue in Surrogate’s Court litigation – – whether the proposed or nominated fiduciary should be disqualified from serving in a fiduciary capacity on the grounds of “dishonesty” or “improvidence.” In the Estate of George Mathai a familiar dynamic was in play – – there was a dispute between the decedent’s children from a prior marriage and the decedent’s surviving spouse. The decedent’s two children from a prior marriage objected to the appointment of their step-mother as Administrator of the decedent’s estate. They claimed that she was unfit to serve as fiduciary on the grounds of dishonesty, hostility, and improvidence.

At the outset, the court noted that the decedent’s surviving spouse was first in the order of statutory priority to serve as Administrator under SCPA §1001(a). However, the statute gives parties interested in a decedent’s estate the opportunity to object to the appointment of a fiduciary, where the fiduciary “does not possess the qualifications required of a fiduciary by reason of substance abuse, dishonesty, improvidence, want of understanding, or…is otherwise unfit for the execution of the office.”

With the decedent’s children objecting to the appointment of their step-mother, the question became what, in this context, do the statutory terms “dishonesty,” and “improvidence” mean?

Addressing “dishonesty,” the Surrogate explained that in order to prove that a potential fiduciary is dishonest “it must be shown that the person has a tendency or ‘habit of mind’ toward wrongful action.”   An act of isolated wrongdoing is not enough to disqualify a fiduciary from serving on the basis of “dishonesty.” It must be shown that there was dishonesty in money matters to such an extent that it would lead to a reasonable apprehension that the estate would not be safe.

Addressing “improvidence” the court quoted earlier decisions where it was observed that “the quality of being improvident does not necessarily involve moral turpitude,” and that defined improvident acts as those that “would be likely to render the estate unsafe and liable to be lost or diminished.” The court further explained that misappropriation or mishandling of the decedent’s property falls within the meaning of improvidence.

In the Estate of George Mathai, the decedent’s children could not meet their burden of showing dishonesty or improvidence to disqualify their step-mother. Additionally, while they claimed that their step-mother should not be appointed on the grounds of hostility, the court dismissed their objection, repeating the rule that mere hostility between the fiduciary and the beneficiaries is not grounds for disqualification; hostility will only serve as a basis for disqualification where it jeopardizes the proper administration of the estate.

In this regard, it is worth noting that courts are mindful of beneficiaries or distributees seeking to impose their preference of fiduciary contrary to the testator’s choice of fiduciary (or contrary to the statutory order of priority) through their own misconduct. In this regard, beneficiaries are not permitted to bootstrap their own unreasonableness, hostility, and misconduct into a claim for disqualification or removal on the grounds of friction and hostility. As the New York County Surrogate’s Court has pointed out:

Courts are also loathe to indulge a beneficiary’s wish to dictate, at will or at whim, who the fiduciary should or will be. After all, where there is a clash between beneficiary and fiduciary, it is the latter who faces the potential for liability; it may be presumed therefore that the prospect of a surcharge will chasten the fiduciary to try to do right on an issue as to which the beneficiary him/herself is free to be wrong. As a corollary, a beneficiary should not be allowed to bootstrap his or her way to a new fiduciary by intentionally antagonizing the current fiduciary.

Sometimes language contained in wills and trusts can be misleading to the lay person. 

For example, while they are good for a chuckle, provisions in wills that unequivocally and forcefully direct the executor to hire a certain lawyer in connection with the testator’s estate’s administration are unenforceable.  Who would believe that such will provisions usually direct that the executor hire the lawyer who drafted the will?

As my colleagues explain, “exoneration clauses,” which are provisions in wills and trusts that purport to provide ironclad insulation from liability to an executor or trustee, are “not all they are cracked up to be.” 

What about a trust that grants the trustee “absolute discretion” to make distributions?  What do those words mean to a beneficiary who is seeking a distribution?

As the New York County Surrogate’s Court held in Matter of Hammerschlag, NYLJ April 26, 2013 at p.37, the broad grant of  absolute discretion to a trustee to make distributions is “not unbounded.”   The court explained the well-settled law that a court is empowered to review the exercise or non-exercise of a discretionary power (such as the absolute discretion to make distributions of principal and income from a trust) conferred upon a trustee so as to prevent any abuse in the exercise of that power. 

In Hammerschlag, a beneficiary of a trust sought to compel trust distributions.  The beneficiary alleged that she was in dire straits, homeless and with no means of support.  She asserted that the trustee improperly exercised his absolute discretion when he declined to make distributions.  Specifically, the beneficiary argued that the trustee merely relied on information (or misinformation) received from her estranged mother in deciding whether to make distributions – that he acted arbitrarily and without appropriate inquiry into relevant circumstances.  The trustee argued that he was acting in good faith and desiring to preserve trust assets, guarding against the beneficiary’s improvidence.  The court scheduled a hearing on the issue of whether the trustee failed to exercise his independent judgment or adequately evaluated the beneficiary’s needs in good faith before exercising his absolute discretion and refusing to make distributions. 

Matter of Mark, C.H., 83 Misc 3d 363 (Sur Ct, New York County 2012), provides an example of what the New York County Surrogate’s Court viewed as an indefensible attempt to rely on the broad grant of “absolute discretion.”  In that case, at trust beneficiary was one of the most vulnerable among us, suffering from profound disabilities.  There, Court first observed that the trust at issue empowered the trustees with absolute discretion to withhold or pay out income, and, in the event of an income shortfall, to pay trust principal for the “care, comfort, support and maintenance” of the beneficiary and his descendants. Then the Court found as follows:

The trustees left [the beneficiary] to languish for several years with inadequate care, despite the fact that the [trust] had abundant assets. In so doing, the trustees failed to exhibit a reasonable degree of diligence toward [the beneficiary]. Courts will intervene not only when the trustee behaves recklessly, but also when the trustee fails to exercise judgment altogether (“even where a trustee has discretion whether or not to make any payments to a particular beneficiary, the court will interpose if the trustee, arbitrarily or without knowledge of or inquiry into relevant circumstances, fails to exercise the discretion”) (citation omitted). That is, sadly, precisely what occurred here.

 Absolute discretion is the broadest grant of discretion, and courts are deferential to a trustee’s exercise of such discretion– courts do not lightly substitute their own judgment for that of a trustee.  However, in exercising absolute discretion, a trustee must not act arbitrarily, but must use his judgment and act in good faith with knowledge of or inquiry into relevant circumstances.  In a case like Hammerschlag,  the trustee’s decision-making process is critical.  Was the decision to decline to make distributions arbitrary or the result of a process of consideration and the exercise of the trustee’s independent judgment, or was it arbitrary and made without consideration or inquiry? 

 

 

 

 

Attempting to determine the rightful intestate distributees of decedents in kinship hearings can be interesting. To illustrate, in the most general way, how the process works in Surrogate’s Court, let us take the simple case of Joe, an MTA switchman who never executed a Will, never married, and died at the age of 90, having lived in a modest apartment in Flushing, New York for the last 70 years (except for the years 1944 through 1949 when he served in the armed forces). There is no sign that Joe has any family. What happens to Joe’s $75,000 condominium and $2 million in cash and marketable securities?  

Joe’s assets will be administered by the Public Administrator – the Public Administrator will marshal Joe’s assets, pay all debts and administration expenses, and after due diligence, will render an accounting to whatever potential heirs the Public Administrator is able to locate through due diligence and the Attorney General of the State of New York. To get a bit of an idea as to what the Public Administrator does, check out these websites, http://queenscountypa.com/ http://www.nyc.gov/html/kcpa/html/home/home.shtml. (You can also follow the Queens County Public Administrator on twitter if you are interested).

In Joe’s case, the Public Administrator is able to determine through due diligence, e.g., talking to Joe’s neighbors, reviewing Joe’s birth certificate found among Joe’s personal effects, looking at census records, looking at Joe’s draft registration card, and looking at social security records, the identity of Joe’s long deceased mother, and two gentlemen who may be cousins of Joe on his mother’s side (maternal cousins). The Public Administrator is unable to obtain any information about Joe’s father.  The Public Administrator has not found any records showing that Joe was married or had any children. 

Because Joe’s intestate distributees are unknown, the Public Administrator will request that the Surrogate permit the Public Administrator to pay the assets of Joe’s estate to the Commissioner of Finance for the City of New York (Comptroller of the State of New York for Counties outside of New York City) in the absence of a determination of Joe’s intestate distributees. The Public Administrator would cite to the unknown heirs of Joe’s estate by publication, the two potential maternal cousins, and the Attorney General. If no-one appeared in the accounting proceeding, the assets would be deposited with the Commissioner of Finance and would be subject to being recovered by Joe’s heirs that come forward and prove heirship. If potential heirs appear in the accounting proceeding, there will be a kinship hearing in the context of the accounting proceeding. The kinship hearing in that SCPA § 2222 withdrawal proceeding would proceed in the same manner as a kinship hearing in the accounting proceeding. Those persons claiming to be heirs of Joe and seeking to receive Joe’s assets would be required to prove that they and Joe share a common ancestor and that there are no missing or unknown intestate distributees with an equal or superior right to inherit.

Kinship hearings often involve alleged heirs presenting documentary evidence, such as birth certificates, death certificates, social security applications, mortuary records, probate files, obituaries, baptismal certificates, marriage certificates, decrees of divorce, census records and any other publicly available documents that are useful in demonstrating kinship. The presentation of this documentary evidence will also be accompanied by the testimony of witnesses.  In Joe’s case, his birth certificate and his signed social security application indicate that his father is unknown. In Joe’s case, we might also hear from the fellow who lived in the apartment next to Joe, who would testify that he never saw anyone visit Joe, and that he spoke with Joe quite often and that Joe stated that he regretted that he was never married and never had children. The absence of any record of Joe being married or having children (after a thorough search of public records) together with Joe’s neighbor’s testimony, would be highly probative to the issue of whether Joe died with a spouse and issue, as these would be the first people to take in intestacy.  This testimony would be admissible over a hearsay objection based on the pedigree exception to hearsay. There are certain presumptions that a person claiming to be an heir can avail themselves of, such as the presumption that a person is deemed to have predeceased the decedent if he would have been 100 years old at the time of decedent’s death. Another oft employed presumption arises by statute, namely, the three-year presumption under SCPA § 2225. In some cases a professional genealogist will assist counsel in attempting to prove heirship, and even scientific evidence, such as DNA evidence, might come into play in a kinship hearing.  

Kinship proceedings, aside from telling sometimes compelling narratives of peoples’ lives, can be illuminating from a historical perspective. Census records reveal extended families struggling to make it in their new country in ethnic enclaves, and the chaos of World War II and the devastation of the Holocaust can present special challenges to those attempting to prove kinship to a decedent. With vast public records destroyed and the world having been robbed of the memories of millions of people, evidentiary hurdles may abound. In similar fashion, the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination present challenges when attempting to prove kinship to an African-American decedent.          

 

 

In a recent decision in the Estate of Mildred Rosasco , Surrogate Glen carefully explains the difference between undue influence and duress, two legal concepts that have become conflated in Surrogate’s Court practice. 

If you speak with a trusts and estate’s lawyer and ask her to define undue influence, you will hear something like “undue influence is moral coercion that destroys a testator’s will to act independently and leads the testator to act contrary to his own desires because he cannot refuse or is too weak to resist.”   However confident that lawyer sounded in her recitation of this definition, understand that the Court of Appeals has stated, as Surrogate Glen tells us, that "[i]t is impossible to define or describe with precision and exactness what is undue influence . . ."  In Rosasco, Surrogate Glen explains how courts have struggled with the concept of undue influence, citing to decisions dating back to the 19th Century, and how the Court of Appeals, in Matter of Walther (6 NY2d 49 [1959]), affirmed the explanation of undue influence cited above.

What is critical in a probate contest involving an objection on the grounds of undue influence is that a prima facie case of undue influence requires a showing, not only of opportunity and motive to exercise undue influence, but also, of the actual exercise of undue influence.  Although undue influence can be proven by circumstantial evidence, as there is rarely direct proof of undue influence, it can only be proven by substantial circumstantial evidence.  Undue influence is difficult to prove, but the burden of proving undue influence is eased where there is a showing that the testator was in a relationship of trust and dependence with proponent of the will, i.e., the existence of a confidential relationship. Surrogate Riordan’s decision in Matter of Zirinsky is a must read for anyone trying to get a handle on undue influence (Also review the Appellate Court decision on the appeal of the Zirinsky case).

As to duress, Surrogate Glen, citing the Restatement (Third) of Property, notes that duress is something different from undue influence. She explains that a will or a bequest is procured by duress if the wrongdoer threatened to perform or did perform a wrongful act that coerced the testator into doing something that she would not otherwise have done. A “wrongful act” in this definition means a criminal act or an act that the wrongdoer had no right to do. 

One can understand how the two concepts differ by examining a three-year-old child’s threats.  When a three-year-old has his mind set on eating a second piece of chocolate or on watching a cartoon that features incredible acts of violence, he might threaten to flush his father "down the toilet."   In the alternative, he might repeatedly and sincerely state that he will not talk to his father until he receives his chocolate or is gratified by watching Spiderman deliver bone-crushing blows. Flushing another human being down the toilet would certainly constitute a crime.  The three-year-old child’s father taking this threat seriously and acting on this threat could be said to be acting under duress.   On the other hand, absent some legal relationship, such as that which a guardian has with his ward, a person is well within his rights to refuse and refrain from talking or associating with another.  If the three-year-old child’s father is acting on the child’s threat to cut off all communication, he might be said to be acting as a result of undue influence.   

The newly elected Surrogate for Nassau County, Edward W. McCarty III, recently issued a decision in what appears to be a gut-wrenching case involving an infant decedent. In the Estate of Jessica Fernandes, Surrogate McCarty attempts to get to the bottom of two commonly encountered issues in an infant decedent’s estate, that is 1) who should serve as administrator of the decedent’s estate; and 2) whether one of the decedent’s parents should be barred from receiving estate assets. 

In most estates, the answer to the question of who will serve as fiduciary is straightforward. Where a decedent dies having executed a last will and testament, the will identifies the nominated executor (or co-executors). The nominated executor will serve unless the Court finds that he or she is ineligible to serve for the reasons set forth in SCPA § 707. Every person interested in the estate has the opportunity, pursuant to SCPA § 709, to object to the appointment of the nominated executor. Where a person dies intestate, a person interested in the estate may object to the appointment of an administrator on one or more of the grounds set forth in SCPA § 707Article 10 of the SCPA governs the order of priority of who is entitled to serve as an administrator of an intestate estate. 

In Fernandes, the decedent was a 12 year-old girl who succumbed to respiratory failure. She had been incapacitated since birth, and her mother had been appointed her personal needs guardian, as well as co-guardian of her property along with an attorney, pursuant to Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law. The decedent had recovered in excess of $3.5 million in the settlement of a medical malpractice action.   All else being equal, the decedent’s mother and father have equal priority to serve as administrator of her estate pursuant to SCPA § 1001, and the Court may appoint, in its discretion, one or both of them.

Following the decedent’s death, her mother petitioned for letters of administration and requested that the decedent’s father be disqualified, pursuant to EPTL § 4-1.4, from taking an intestate share of decedent’s estate on the basis of his alleged failure to provide for, and abandonment of, the decedent. The decedent’s father struck back, denying that he had abandoned the decedent, objecting to the decedent’s mother’s appointment as administrator of the decedent’s estate pursuant to SCPA § 707 on the grounds that the decedent’s mother had engaged in fraud and dishonesty, and cross-petitioning for letters of administration. The decedent’s mother appears to have also alleged that the decedent’s father is a non-domiciliary alien and thus ineligible to serve as administrator pursuant to SCPA § 707 (1) (c), and that he cannot read or write in English, and that the Court should thus, in its discretion, find him ineligible to serve pursuant to SCPA § 707 (2). The decedent’s mother also alleged that decedent’s father’s open hostility to her rendered him ineligible to serve. 

Judge McCarty’s decision indicates that he is poised to address the factual allegations that the parties have made. He explained that summary judgment was inappropriate; the papers before him left several issues of fact to be resolved at a hearing (the hearing may have already been held). Aside from untangling the issue of the decedent’s father’s immigration status, it seems that the Surrogate will be faced with determining whether each of the decedent’s parents can read and write in the English language, and, if not, whether this should affect their ability to serve. In this inquiry, he may be informed by a recent decision from the Surrogate’s Court, New York County, Matter of Torbibio.   

Moreover, while dishonesty is one of the grounds set forth in SCPA § 707 (e) as a basis to render someone ineligible to receive letters, dishonesty as contemplated by the statute is not dishonesty in answering questions such as “how big was that fish that you caught last fall?” but, as the First Department recently explained, dishonesty in money matters from which a reasonable apprehension may be entertained that the funds of the estate would not be safe in the hands of the contemplated fiduciary.   As for the decedent’s mother’s claim that the decedent’s father’s hostility renders him ineligible, as countless Surrogate’s Court practitioners have explained to their clients, mere hostility is simply not enough. It is well-settled that an individual will only be barred from being appointed fiduciary where friction or hostility interferes with the proper administration of the estate, and future cooperation is unlikely. 

Barring a settlement, it appears that the Court will reach the second issue, whether the decedent’s father should be disqualified from sharing in the decedent’s estate, at the close of discovery. His decision contains a granular analysis of disputes among the parties as to documentary discovery – the kind of analysis that is helpful to lawyers when they get down to the task of drafting demands for documents.