With a specific statute (Domestic Relations Law §236(3)) mandating that pre-nuptial agreements must be acknowledged, and with a specific statutory form of acknowledgment (Real Property Law §309-a(1)), it is surprising that there has been so much litigation over missing or defective acknowledgements and whether they can be cured after the fact.

In Matter of Koegel, 2018 NY Slip Op 00833 (2d Dept 2018), recently decided by the Appellate Division Second Department, husband died in 2014. Surviving spouse filed a Notice of Spousal Election under EPTL 5-1.1-A.   The estate petitioned to set aside the right of election on the basis of a waiver contained in a pre-nuptial agreement. The spouse moved to dismiss claiming that the acknowledgment on the agreement was invalid in that it omitted the standard language contained in the statutory form to the effect that the signers were known to the respective notaries.

On the motion, each notary submitted an affidavit to the effect the he “did not have to provide me with any identification of who he was because he was well known to me at the time.” The Second Department affirmed the decision of the court below that the defect could be remedied, distinguishing the case from Matisoff v Dobi, 90 NY2d 127 (1997) where the agreement had not been acknowledged at all and Galetta v Galetta, 21 NY3d 186 (2013) where the agreement was acknowledged but defective in the same respect as in this case, but the notary did not know the decedent and although he could describe his usual procedure, could not categorically swear that he took the steps to identify the party acknowledging the agreement in this instance.

In 2010, the Appellate Division, Second Department, made it clear that principles of equity grounded in rules of forfeiture can adversely impact a surviving spouse’s entitlement to an elective share. In Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010),  the Appellate Division rendered a decision of first impression when it denied the right of election asserted by the decedent’s surviving spouse based on the equitable principle that a party may not profit from his or her own wrongdoing.  In Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883 (2d Dept 2010), the Appellate Division adhered to the foregoing principles when it reversed a decree of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, which granted the petitioner, the surviving spouse of the decedent, summary judgment determining the validity of her right of election against the decedent’s estate. Following the 2010 opinion in Matter of Berk, the case continued to wind its way through the Surrogate’s Court as it headed towards trial.

Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, had the opportunity to readdress the parties in Matter of Berk, and provide practitioners with further instruction on the issues impacting the claimed elective share. Specifically, the Court modified an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.) by (1) adding as an issue of fact to be tried the question of whether the petitioner, the decedent’s surviving spouse, exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate, and (2) replacing so much of the order, as imposed the burden of proof on appellants, the executors of the estate, by clear and convincing evidence, with a provision that placed the burden of proof on appellants by a preponderance of the credible evidence (see Matter of Berk, 133 AD3d 850 [2d Dept 2015]).

As readers may recall, the underlying proceeding involved a petition by the surviving spouse of the decedent for a determination of the validity and effect of her exercise of her right of election against his estate pursuant to EPTL 5-1.1-A.  In their answer, the appellants, the executors of the estate, asserted as an affirmative defense that the decedent was incompetent to enter into a marriage, that the petitioner knew that he was incapable of entering into a marriage, and that the petitioner had exercised undue influence over the decedent to convince him to marry her.

As stated, on a prior appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed an order granting summary judgment to the petitioner, finding that there was an issue of fact as to whether the petitioner had forfeited her right of election by her alleged wrongdoing; that is, by marrying the decedent knowing that he was mentally incapable of consenting to a marriage for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate. The Court further ruled that the appellants’ counterclaims alleging undue influence were improperly dismissed.

On remitter to the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, the parties submitted proposed statements of the issues to be determined at trial, as well as proposals concerning the burden and quantum of proof on the issues. In the order appealed from, the Surrogate’s Court limited the issues for trial to whether the decedent was mentally incapacitated and incapable of consenting to his marriage to the petitioner, and if so, whether the petitioner took unfair advantage of him by marrying him for the purpose of availing herself, as his surviving spouse, of his estate at death. The Surrogate further ruled that the appellants/executors had the burden of proof on the issues by clear and convincing evidence. The Surrogate did not include the issue of undue influence as a matter to be determined.  The executors appealed.

The Appellate Division opined that the issue of whether the petitioner had forfeited her elective share under the circumstances raised by the proceeding was based on the equitable doctrine that the petitioner should not profit from her own wrongdoing. Where a claim of wrongful conduct is made, the parties asserting same, i.e., the appellants, have the burden of proving the wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.  The Court further held that evidence of a confidential relationship between the petitioner and the decedent, by virtue of their marriage, was not, in itself, proof of the petitioner’s wrongdoing, and, as such, did not shift the burden of proof to the petitioner to prove otherwise.

Additionally, the Court held that an alternative ground for forfeiture of the right of election was whether the petitioner exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her. Again, the Court determined that the appellants had the burden of proof on this issue by a preponderance of the credible evidence.

The Berk matter is now primed for trial. Stay tuned for what is sure to be an instructive outcome.

Under New York law, a decedent is prohibited from disinheriting his or her surviving spouse (see Margaret Valentine Turano, Practice Commentaries: EPTL § 5-1.1-A [1999 ed.]). Consistent with that prohibition, the laws of this state provide that a decedent’s surviving spouse has a personal right of election to take a portion of the decedent’s estate, whether or not the decedent provides for the spouse in his or her last will and testament (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A). Predictably, the right of election has given rise to extensive litigation, as evidenced by Suffolk County Surrogate John M. Czygier, Jr.’s recent decision in Matter of Newman (see Matter of Newman, 883 P 2007/A, NYLJ 1202520804987 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County Nov. 1, 2011]). As discussed below, Newman is noteworthy because it addresses the extent to which a judicial determination that the alleged surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent was unlawful will affect the spouse’s right to elect against the decedent’s estate.

EPTL § 5-1.1-A provides that the surviving spouse of a decedent who dies on or after September 1, 1992, has a personal right to elect against the decedent’s estate (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A), unless it is established that the marriage upon which the surviving spouse relies was incestuous, bigamous, or a prohibited remarriage under the Domestic Relations Law (see Newman, supra). The financial consequences of a surviving spouse asserting elective share rights can be substantial, as the pecuniary value of the elective share is equal to “the greater of (i) fifty thousand dollars or, if the capital value of the [decedent’s] net estate is less than fifty thousand dollars, such capital value, or (ii) one third of the net estate” (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A).

In Newman, the decedent’s alleged surviving spouse, Kenneth Newman (“Kenneth”), sought to exercise his elective share rights against the decedent’s estate (see Newman, supra). After the decedent’s will was admitted to probate, the fiduciary of her estate commenced a proceeding to determine the validity of Kenneth’s election against the estate (see id.). Kenneth died before the matter was resolved, and the executor of the decedent’s estate ultimately moved for summary judgment concerning Kenneth’s notice of election (see id.).

Surrogate Czygier held that Kenneth’s notice of election was invalid, as his marriage to the decedent was unlawful (see id.). In reaching that conclusion, the Surrogate found that, at the time he allegedly married the decedent, Kenneth had not yet divorced (and, thus, was still married to) his first wife (see id.). Absent evidence that Kenneth and the decedent “remarried” after Kenneth divorced his first wife, the executor of the decedent’s estate presented sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that Kenneth’s “second marriage [was] valid and that the prior marriage was dissolved by death, divorce, or annulment” (see id.). Accordingly, as Kenneth’s marriage to the decedent was unlawful, his notice of election was void and unenforceable (see id.).

In sum, while a surviving spouse generally has a right to elect against a decedent’s estate, that right is not absolute (see Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883 [2d Dep’t 2010]). To the extent that the surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent is unlawful, the survivor will not receive his or her elective share.