My colleagues have written on the enforceability of in terrorem clauses, and the courts continue to confront challenges in reconciling the testator’s intent to impose an in terrorem condition with the rights of beneficiaries to challenge the conduct of their fiduciary. The New York County Surrogate’s Court’s recent decision in Matter of Merenstein provides further guidance to practitioners in assessing the kind of conduct that will trigger an in terrorem clause. It illustrates that the courts, in construing broad in terrorem provisions, will draw a distinction between conduct aimed at challenging the conduct of an executor and conduct aimed at nullifying a testator’s choice of executor.

In Merenstein, the decedent bequeathed his estate to his two daughters. His daughter Ilene was favored under the will – – she received 73% of the decedent’s residuary estate and was nominated the sole executor. His daughter Emma received 27% of the decedent’s residuary estate. The in terrorem clause in Merenstein provided as follows:

If any person in any manner, directly or indirectly, challenges the validity or adequacy of any bequest or devise to him or her in this Will, makes any other demand or claim against my estate, becomes a party to any proceeding to set aside, interfere with or modify any provision of this Will or of any trust established by me, or offers any objections to the probate hereof, such person and all of his or her descendants shall be deemed to have predeceased me, and accordingly they shall have no interest in this Will.

Decedent’s will was admitted to probate and Ilene was appointed executor without objection.

Emma brought a proceeding asking the court whether certain contemplated conduct on her part would trigger a forfeiture of her beneficial interest under the in terrorem clause. Her first question was whether a petition to compel the executor to account, and a subsequent petition to remove the executor in the event that the executor disregarded a court order to account, would trigger the in terrorem clause. That was easy. The court held, consistent with well-settled law, that a beneficiary will not trigger an in terrorem clause by demanding an accounting of an executor, by objecting to an executor’s accounting, or by seeking removal of the executor in the event of the executor’s failure to comply with an order to account.

Emma also asked whether she would trigger the in terrorem clause by petitioning for limited letters of administration giving her the authority to conduct an investigation into whether Ilene had fraudulently used the decedent’s credit card during the decedent’s life. This was another easy one. Consistent with well-settled law, the court held that a petition for the issuance of limited letters to pursue an investigation into whether there are assets of the estate in the possession of others, including someone who is also a fiduciary, does not seek to challenge the validity of the will or any of its provisions. The filing of such a petition and even a subsequent discovery or turnover proceeding would not cause the beneficiary to forfeit her benefits under the will.

The court drew a line however, when Emma asked whether filing a petition to suspend Ilene’s letters testamentary during the investigation into the credit card charges would trigger a forfeiture under the in terrorem provision. Emma claimed that such an order of suspension was necessary to prevent Ilene from interfering with her investigation as limited administrator. The court held that such an application would trigger the in terrorem clause. Such conduct, according to the court, would constitute an attack on the decedent’s choice of fiduciary. The court explained:

Seeking the suspension of Ilene’s letters pending any investigation that Emma may pursue and in the absence of any allegation of misconduct by Ilene in her fiduciary capacity is akin to a challenge to the testator’s choice of fiduciary as established under the will. The in terrorem clause in decedent’s will disinherits a beneficiary who commences a proceeding to set aside any of the provisions of the will, and therefore, the filing of this type of petition, which does not fall within the safe harbor provisions of EPTL 3-3.5 (b), would result in forfeiture in this case

Finally, Emma asked the court whether a petition to remove Ilene as executor in the event that Ilene was determined to have engaged in improper conduct with respect to the credit card charges would trigger the in terrorem clause.   The court declined to rule on that question. It did however, point out that the alleged credit card charges occurred while the decedent was still alive, and earlier in the decision, cited to Matter of Cohn, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division, First Department.

In the Cohn estate, the courts confirmed that public policy will bar the application of an in terrorem clause where a beneficiary seeks removal of an executor based on allegations of the executor’s misconduct in their capacity as executor, but will not bar the application of an in terrorem clause where a beneficiary seeks to remove or supplant an executor based on some other ostensible basis that constitutes an attack on the testator’s choice of fiduciary, or on the powers and authority given to the fiduciary by the testator. There, the courts recognized that an attempt to displace the testator’s chosen executors based on the allegation that such executors had failed to fully inform the testator of the compensation that they would receive as executors was simply an attack on the testator’s choice of fiduciary that would trigger an in terrorem clause similar to the in terrorem provision in Merenstein.

The court in Merenstein, like the courts in the Cohn estate, recognized that fidelity to a testator’s intent warrants a fact-sensitive inquiry in enforcing terrorem clauses. Based on Merenstein and Cohn, it is clear that a beneficiary would be hard-pressed to claim that a limited administrator should supplant an executor in representing the estate in a litigation where the executor has no conflict, has not failed to act, and has not engaged in misconduct as executor, without triggering an in terrorem provision like that in Merenstein. Similarly, a beneficiary should understand that petitioning for a limited administrator to perform some estate administration task on the mere allegation that the executor has bias or hostility towards the beneficiary because of some events that occurred between the beneficiary and executor while the decedent was still alive is sure to be considered a challenge to the testator’s choice of fiduciary. Such a challenge will trigger an in terrorem clause like that in Merenstein. When faced with an in terrorem provision like that in Merenstein, a beneficiary must consider whether it is challenging the conduct of the fiduciary, or attacking the decedent’s choice of fiduciary. There is a difference, and it could mean a forfeiture.

In a decision issued yesterday by the First Department, the Appellate Division affirmed the Surrogate’s holding that a proceeding pursuant to SCPA §711 to revoke letters testamentary and letters of trusteeship would trigger an in terrorem clause. The petitioner alleged that the fiduciaries failed to inform the decedent of the benefits to which they would be entitled as a result of their fiduciary positions.

The subject in terrorem clause in Hallman v Bosswick, 2010 NY Slip Op 03486 (1st Dept 2010) provided that it would be triggered by any beneficiary who was to commence a proceeding “‘to void, nullify or set aside all or any part’ of the will”. Noting that a revocation proceeding did not fall within the safe harbor provisions of EPTL §3-3.5(b), the Court stated that its determination would be based upon the decedent’s expressed intent.

 

The respondents, the co-executors and co-trustees whose letters would be placed in issue by the proposed revocation proceeding, had no familial relationship to the decedent. Based on this fact, the petitioner, a child of the decedent, argued that because the will provided no bequests for respondents, the decedent must have intended to limit the scope of the in terrorem clause to challenges against his family members. The Court disagreed. It opined that the decedent’s choice to leave his estate in trusts for his children and grandchildren, as opposed to making outright devises, illustrated an intent to deprive them of complete control over his assets; an intent that was furthered by his nominating non-relatives as co-executors and co-trustees.

 

The Court also disagreed with the petitioner’s alternate assertion that if the testator had intended the clause to be triggered by the commencement of a SCPA §711 proceeding, public policy should prevent its enforcement. According to the Court, this argument was conditioned upon a rule that the safe harbor provisions of EPTL §3-3.5 are not exclusive, and despite the recent decision of the Court of Appeals in Matter of Singer, 13 NY2d 447 (2009) which stated as much (as discussed in a prior entry), the First Department opined that the language was dicta. Thus, the Court rejected the petitioner’s public policy argument, reasoning that a court’s expansion of the safe harbor provisions should not originate with a lower or intermediate court, but instead with the Court of Appeals. 

 

This last argument is an interesting perspective on Singer, and may pave the way for a conservative interpretation of the Court of Appeals’ decision. Accordingly, we may have to wait for the Court of Appeals to implement its own rule as law before the lower courts will follow suit.

In a rare venture into the world of trusts and estates and its most significant recent ruling regarding in terrorem clauses, the Court of Appeals in Matter of Singer, 2009 NY Slip Op 09265, reversed both the Surrogate’s Court and the Appellate Division, holding that a beneficiary’s conduct in deposing the testator’s former attorney regarding drafts of prior wills did not violate the in terrorem clauses in the propounded will. Specifically, the Court held that the safe harbor provisions of SCPA 1404 and EPTL 3-3.5 are not exclusive, and must be applied on a case-by-case basis. The decision has essentially set forth a two-prong analysis to determine whether a beneficiary’s conduct triggers an in terrorem clause, consisting of the following inquiries: (1) whether the conduct falls within the statutory safe harbor provisions, and if not (2) whether it violated the testator’s intent.

In Singer, the decedent had executed a last will and testament approximately one year prior to his death, in which he appointed his daughter, Vivien, as executor. He also created a corresponding revocable trust through which he bequeathed to Vivien his home, most of his tangible personal property, and the sum of $200,000. In the trust instrument, the decedent stated that Vivien’s inheritance was in recognition and gratitude for her extreme dedication and constant care. The decedent’s son, Alexander, received one-half of the remainder of the estate, to be split with Vivien, and each of Alexander’s sons was given a $15,000 bequest.

 

The will contained a typical, broad in terrorem clause, which stated, “if any beneficiary, shall, in any manner, directly or indirectly, contest, object to or oppose, or attempt to contest, object to or oppose the probate or validity of [the] will or revocable trust created by [the decedent], or any part of [his] estate plan, or any gifts made by [him], . . .” that beneficiary’s share of the estate would be forfeited (id. at *2). The decedent also included a second in terrorem clause that was explicitly directed at Alexander. That clause directed that Alexander “not take [decedent’s] daughter . . . to a . . . (religious court) or to any other court for any reason whatsoever . . . ,” and stated that if he did, the result would be the forfeiture of his and his sons’ inheritance (id.).

Continue Reading Court of Appeals: Extra Deposition Did Not Violate In Terrorem Clause

In terrorem provisions, which are more commonly known as “no contest” clauses, generally state that beneficiaries forfeit their interests in estates and trusts by contesting the validity of the governing instruments (see Matter of Kalikow, 23 Misc3d 1107[A], at *2 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 2009] [discussing in terrorem clauses]). While strictly construed, such clauses are enforceable in New York (Matter of Ellis, 252 AD2d 118, 127-28 [2d Dept 1998]). They serve several important purposes, such as preventing challenges to wills which might result in trials, jeopardize the testator or grantor’s testamentary or inter vivos plans, or harass other beneficiaries (Matter of Singer, 17 Misc3d 365, 370 [Sur Ct, Kings County], aff’d, 52 AD3d 612 [2d Dept 2008], leave granted, 11 NY3d 716 [2009]; Tumminello v Bolten, 59 AD3d 727, 728 [2d Dept 2009]). 

In Shamash v Stark, Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen of the Surrogate’s Court, New York County, recently addressed an issue of first impression in New York (Shamash v Stark, NYLJ, 6/16/2009, at 38, col. 2 [Sur Ct, New York County]). The issue was whether will and trust contests in Florida, where no contest clauses are void as against public policy (F.S.A. § 732.517), triggered an in terrorem clause contained in a New York trust instrument (Shamash, supra).[1] 
 

In Shamash, the decedent’s revocable trust, which was governed by New York law, provided that any beneficiary who contested his will or trust would forfeit his or her interest in the trust (id.).  After contesting the will and trust in Florida, the petitioner commenced an accounting and removal proceeding with respect to the trust in the New York Surrogate’s Court (id.). The respondents moved to dismiss the Surrogate’s Court proceeding, arguing that the petitioner was not a beneficiary of the trust estate, and therefore lacked standing to maintain the proceeding, because he had triggered the trust’s in terrorem clause by contesting the will and trust in Florida (id.). In opposition, the petitioner asserted, among other things, that he did not trigger the in terrorem clause because no contest clauses are void under Florida law (id.).

 

The Surrogate’s Court dismissed the petition, holding that the petitioner lacked standing to seek an accounting or removal with respect to the trust (id.). The court reasoned that: (1) the trust is governed by New York law; (2) in terrorem clauses are enforceable in New York; and (3) the petitioner triggered the trust’s in terrorem clause by contesting the decedent’s will and trust in Florida (id.). The fact that no contest clauses are void as against public policy in Florida was immaterial (id.).

           

The lesson to take away from Shamash is that the contest of a will or trust in another state, where in terrorem clauses are not enforceable, may trigger such a clause in a New York instrument and result in the forfeiture of a beneficiary’s interest in the subject estate or trust.

 

 


[1]   This firm represented the respondents in the Surrogate’s Court proceeding.