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.

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.       

 A recent decision emanating from the Appellate Division, Second Department, Matter of Venezia, implicates two fundamental — and seldom conflicting — legal principles. The first of these is that a testator has the right to designate a legally qualified person to administer his or her estate, and that designation is entitled to great deference. And, secondly, a party’s entitlement to be represented by counsel of its choice is a valued right, and any attempt to restrict that right must be carefully scrutinized.

Matter of Venezia was a probate proceeding in which the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, after a hearing, granted the motion of the objectant to disqualify the nominated executrix from serving as such and reinstated letters of administration previously issued to the objectant.

The objectant’s proffered basis for removal of the petitioner as executrix — which was accepted by the Surrogate’s Court — was that the petitioner’s selection of counsel rendered her unqualified to serve. The objectant argued that he and the petitioner’s counsel had been adversarial in a prior conservatorship proceeding and that they had a hostile relationship.  

The Appellate Division began its analysis by noting that “the right of a testator or testatrix to designate, among those legally qualified, who will settle his or her affairs, is not to be lightly discarded[,]” although “the Surrogate may disqualify an individual from receiving letters of administration where friction or hostility between such individual and a beneficiary or a co-administrator or co-administratrix, especially where such individual is at fault, interferes with the proper administration of the estate, and future cooperation is unlikely” (citations omitted).

The court noted, however, that the evidence adduced at the hearing demonstrated that the objectant — not the petitioner’s counsel — was the source of the hostility between them. That fact, combined with the fact that there was no evidence that the petitioner was unqualified to serve as executrix or that she committed misconduct, lead to a determinations that the Surrogate’s Court erred in disqualifying the petitioner from serving as executrix.

Nevertheless, the Appellate Division directed that the petitioner retain new counsel to represent her, “given the hostility the objectant harbors for the petitioner’s counsel, and since it is unlikely that the objectant will cooperate with counsel in the future. . . .” Notably, the court made this determination notwithstanding its observation that “the record does not demonstrate that counsel retained by the petitioner acted improperly[.]” 

So, let’s get this straight. The duly nominated fiduciary of a decedent’s estate hired an attorney of her choice. That attorney did nothing improper. Yet, due to “hostility” between the attorney and the objectant — hostility created by the objectant — and the fact that the objectant was not likely to cooperate with the petitioner’s counsel in the future, the court directed the petitioner to retain new counsel. 

The Court of Appeals has made clear that a party’s entitlement to be represented by counsel of its choice is “a valued right and any restrictions [thereto] must be carefully scrutinized” (S&S Hotel Ventures Ltd. Partnership v 777 S.H. Corp., 69 NY2d 437 [1987]). It is not clear from the Appellate Division’s decision that it adequately considered this principle when it deprived the petitioner of her counsel of choice. 

 

Beneficiaries often question the circumstances under which a trustee or executor’s legal fees are chargeable against their inheritance, especially when those fees are incurred in defending the fiduciary’s alleged misconduct. 

The law provides that fiduciaries who are guilty of a breach often remain entitled to have their litigation costs covered by the estate or trust for which they serve (see Estate of Casey, 6/21/93 NYLJ 33 [col 6][Sur Ct, Westchester County]; Matter of Kettle, 73 AD2d 786 [4th Dept 1979]). Although Surrogate’s Courts have the discretion to charge legal fees against the fiduciary personally “as an expense caused by their wrong”, these determinations are generally limited to cases where the court finds an act of bad faith (see Matter of Hidden, 243 NY 499 [1926]). It is therefore logical that the legal fees of a fiduciary who is not guilty of any misconduct are chargeable to the estate or trust. This was the case in Matter of Hyde, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op 02491(3d Dept 2009). There, however, the beneficiaries who had not contested the trustees’ accounting sought to have the trustees’ litigation costs borne solely by the shares of the objecting parties. 

Matter of Hyde dealt with two trusts, the Hyde Trust and the Cunningham Trust, of which two families, the Renz family and the Whitney family, were beneficiaries. Specifically, the Hyde Trust provided that the Hyde grandchildren, Louis Whitney (“Whitney”) and Mary W. Renz (“Renz”), were each to receive equal shares of trust income during their respective lifetimes. Upon the death of either beneficiary, the principal of the deceased beneficiary’s share was to be distributed to each of Hyde’s great-grandchildren. Whitney died in January 2008, providing each of Hyde’s five great-grandchildren with a one-fifth interest in the remaining principal of Whitney’s half.

The Cunningham Trust also provided income for Whitney and Renz, each receiving a one-sixth interest therein, with a contingent remainder of one-sixth of the principal upon termination of the trust if the beneficiary were still living.In 2001, the trustees of the Hyde Trust commenced a proceeding for an intermediate accounting. Thereafter, in 2003, the trustees of the Cunningham Trust commenced a proceeding to settle their intermediate accounts. The Whitney children filed objections to each accounting, seeking to deny trustees’ commissions and to surcharge for failure to diversify investments. The Warren County Surrogate’s Court dismissed the objections, and said dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

Because the objections and subsequent trial were pursued solely by the Whitney children, the Renz children sought to charge only the Whitney portion of the trust with legal fees in connection with the defense of said objections. The Surrogate denied the motion, and charged each of the trusts as a whole with all litigation expenses. 

SCPA 2110[1] authorizes the Surrogate to fix litigation costs in connection with legal services provided to a fiduciary. In addition, pursuant to SCPA 2110[2], the Surrogate may “direct payment therefor from the estate generally or from the funds in the hands of the fiduciary belonging to any legatee, devisee or person interested.” Here, the Surrogate charged the trusts as a whole with the attorneys’ fees incurred defending in both accounting proceedings, despite the nonparticipation of the Renz beneficiaries.  The Third Department affirmed.

In upholding the Warren County Surrogate’s decision, the Appellate Division relied on both SCPA 2110, and the Court of Appeals holding in Matter of Dillon, 28 NY2d 597 (1971). Dillon provides that “SCPA 2110 does not authorize payment for legal services rendered a party to be charged against the share of other individual parties” (see Matter of Dillon, 28 NY2d 597, 599). The Renz beneficiaries’ attempt to distinguish Dillon was without avail.

 

 

The real estate market might be bad, but it’s not that bad.
 
In Matter of Karr, NYLJ 2/5/09 (Surrogate’s Court, Kings County), Surrogate Maria López Torrez canceled a deed by which the executor of an estate attempted to convey to herself, in consideration of $10, a house owned by the estate.  You can’t make this stuff up.

The defendant in the action, Joan Melluso, was the executor of her father’s estate.  He died in 1977, leaving his house in equal shares to his daughter and son, Joan and Donald.  He also granted Joan a life estate in the house, and included a clause in his will providing that “[t]he choice when and if to sell shall be hers.”  In 2004, Donald died intestate, leaving a wife and four children.  In 2007, Joan, in her capacity as the executor of her father’s estate, conveyed the property outright to herself for $10.  

Donald’s wife and children filed an action in Supreme Court seeking, among other things, a declaration that the deed conveying the house to Joan was invalid and that they retained a 50-percent tenancy-in-common interest in the house.  They moved for summary judgment.  Joan cross-moved to transfer the action to Surrogate’s Court.  The court denied the motion for summary judgment without prejudice and granted the cross-motion to transfer.  Ultimately, the fully briefed motion for summary judgment was submitted for decision to the Surrogate.

Continue Reading Court Rejects Executor’s Attempt to Sell House To Herself For $10

 Questions often arise regarding a nominated executor’s authority to commence an action on behalf of the estate prior to the issuance of letters testamentary.  These must be answered on a case-by-case basis.

In general, the authority of an executor “is derived from the will, not from the letters issued by the Surrogate” (see Matter of Yarm, 119 AD2d 754 [2d Dept 1986]).  Thus, the executor’s duty to preserve estate assets arises immediately upon the testator’s death. 

Pursuant to EPTL §11-1.3, a named executor of a will that has not yet been admitted to probate “has no power to dispose of any part of the estate of the testator before letters testamentary or preliminary letters testamentary are granted, . . . nor to interfere with such estate in any manner other than to take such action as is necessary to preserve it” (emphasis added).  It is the language of this statute, and the similar words of its predecessor, Surrogate’s Court Act §223, that the courts have used as a guide in determining the circumstances under which named executors without letters may commence actions on behalf of the estate for which they are nominated to serve.  Because the statute provides that a named executor may take actions that are necessary to “preserve” an estate, courts’ interpretations of the statute have established a fine line between those actions that are commenced for purposes of preservation, and those that constitute “active management” of estate affairs.   

 

          

Continue Reading Powers of a Nominated Executor to Litigate Prior to the Issuance of Letters