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 construing an in terrorem provision, or any part of a will, the paramount consideration is identifying and carrying out the testator’s intent.  Although paramount, the testator’s intention will not be given effect if doing so would violate public policy.  For example, an in terrorem provision that purports to prevent a beneficiary from questioning a fiduciary’s conduct is void as contrary to public policy (see Matter of Egerer, 30 Misc 3d 1229[A], at *1-4 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 2006]).  The recent decision in Matter of Sochurek, NYLJ, July 20, 2016, p. 31 (Sur Ct, Dutchess County June 30, 2016), illustrates the difficulty in reconciling the testator’s intention in respect of an in terrorem condition with the rights of beneficiaries to obtain an accounting or otherwise challenge the actions of their fiduciary.

Sochurek involved a dispute between the decedent’s spouse, who was the executor of his estate, and his two daughters from a prior marriage.  Decedent owned a 50% membership interest in an LLC that owned real property and a business.  The will bequeathed “an estate for life” in the LLC to decedent’s wife, including the right to receive income therefrom.  Upon his wife’s death, “her life interest shall terminate” and the LLC was bequeathed to his two daughters.  The will also contained provisions, likely boilerplate, regarding the executor’s powers to sell estate assets.

After the will had been admitted to probate, the executor/spouse sold the LLC’s real property and business.  The executor and decedent’s daughters entered into a “standstill agreement” providing that any funds the executor received from the sale would be held in a segregated “Life Estate Account” from which no withdrawals would be made for a period while the daughters had an opportunity to appraise the LLC assets and negotiate a reasonable treatment of the proceeds.

Before the standstill agreement expired, the daughters commenced an action against the executor in Supreme Court.  The daughters asserted causes of action for, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duty and an accounting.  An order to show cause enjoined the executor from withdrawing any funds in the “Life Estate Account.”  The ultimate relief sought in the order to show cause was a temporary restraining order and an accounting.  These claims were grounded in the executor’s sale of estate property (assets of the LLC) and actions thereafter as to the proceeds.

The in terrorem provision in the will was directed toward any person who “shall, directly or indirectly, institute or become a party to any proceedings to set aside, interfere with, or make null any provision of this Will, or to offer any objections to the probate thereof . . .” (emphasis added).

The executor commenced a construction proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court contending the daughters’ Supreme Court action interfered with her authority as executor and prevented her from accessing/managing estate assets, thereby triggering the in terrorem clause.  In response, the daughters contended they never contested their father’s will and, to the contrary, conceded its validity.  The daughters asserted that their lawsuit is focused on the executor’s “egregious abuse of her fiduciary duties” and breach of the standstill agreement.

In ascertaining the testator’s intent, the Court reviewed the fiduciary powers article in the Will which gave the executor broad powers to sell, exchange or otherwise dispose of all estate property on such terms as the executor deemed advisable.  Thus, the Court concluded, the executor undoubtedly had the power to dispose of the LLC.  The Surrogate held:

The clear intent of the testator upon a complete reading of the will was to give the executrix of his estate the necessary and broad powers to manage the property as she saw fit.  The Court finds the [daughters] have violated [the in terrorem provision] by commencing an action in the Supreme Court, Westchester County challenging the executrix’s action with regard to the disposition of estate assets, thereby “interfer[ing] with any provision of this Will” [quoting the in terrorem provision]. By interfering with the executrix’s management and ultimate sale of [the LLC], the [daughters] have violated the in terrorem clause of the will and have forfeited their legacies (Matter of Sochurek, NYLJ, July 20, 2016, p. 31 at *8).

The daughters had a beneficial interest in the assets of the LLC which the executor held in a fiduciary capacity.  The relief sought by the daughters in Supreme Court included an accounting and damages for mismanagement of estate assets, including alleged self-dealing.  In Egerer, supra, the Surrogate’s Court held, “any attempt by a testator to preclude a beneficiary from questioning the conduct of the fiduciaries, from demanding an accounting from said fiduciaries or from filing objections thereto will result in a finding that the pertinent language is void as contrary to public policy and the applicable statutes of the State of New York” (Matter of Egerer, 30 Misc 3d 1229[A], *3 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 2006]).

Thus, following Egerer, had the daughters petitioned the Surrogate’s Court successfully for a compulsory accounting and objected to the executor’s accounting alleging the sale of the LLC assets was self-interested, that the executor misappropriated estate assets and breached an agreement as to the management of estate assets, it does not appear the in terrorem condition would have been triggered.

What about obtaining a provisional remedy, such as a TRO, in the context of the accounting?  It would seem inconsistent to allow beneficiaries the right to pursue objections to an accounting without forfeiting an interest in the estate by triggering an in terrorem condition, but deprive them of the ability to seek a provisional remedy securing their interests in the subject of the proceeding.  While the daughters in Sochurek obtained a TRO that interfered with the executor’s management of estate assets, it was in the context of a plenary action seeking an accounting and otherwise challenging the executor’s conduct (cf. Egerer, supra).

As the Sochurek decision illustrates, the case law on the scope and validity of in terrorem conditions continues to develop, and the outcome of each proceeding depends on the particular provisions of the will and the unique, fact-specific circumstances related to the conduct of the party alleged to have violated the condition.

In terrorem clauses generally provide that, where a beneficiary under a testamentary instrument unsuccessfully challenges the instrument’s validity, the beneficiary will forfeit any interests obtained under the instrument.  Testators include in terrorem clauses in their wills in order to dissuade estate beneficiaries from taking action that is contrary to the testators’ wishes, as expressed in their testamentary instruments.  While a paramount objective of the Surrogate’s Court is to act according to testators’ wishes, in terrorem clauses must be narrowly construed, and certain in terrorem provisions are violative of public policy.  This post provides examples of in terrorem clauses that contravene public policy and, thus, are unenforceable under New York law.

Though in terrorem clauses are intended to prevent attacks on the validity of a will, Surrogate’s Courts have recognized that in terrorem provisions which purport to preclude a beneficiary from seeking the removal or suspension of a fiduciary nominated in the governing instrument, based upon the fiduciary’s misconduct, are violative of public policy (Matter of Rimland, 2003 WL 21302910, at *1-2 [Sur Ct, Bronx County 2003]; Matter of Fromartz, NYLJ, Oct. 22, 2005, at 29, col. 1 [Sur Ct, Kings County]).  Indeed, it “is disingenuous for [a party] to contend that [a testator] intended that [a fiduciary acting under a will] serve [as a fiduciary] even if [the fiduciary] violated [his or] her obligations under [the governing instrument] and [his or] her sacred duties of undivided loyalty” (see Rimland, 2003 WL 21302910, at *1-2). 

Former Surrogate Holzman’s decision in Matter of Rimland is highly instructive.  There, the petitioner, the income beneficiary of a testamentary trust, commenced a proceeding for the appointment of a fiduciary to pursue claims against the trustee (see id.).  In response, the trustee argued that the petitioner had triggered the governing will’s in terrorem clause and, therefore, forfeited her interest in the trust (see id.).  Surrogate Holzman was not persuaded by the trustee’s arguments, holding that the trustee’s interpretation of the in terrorem clause was violative of public policy (see id.).

Much like in terrorem clauses which purport to prevent a beneficiary from seeking the removal or suspension of a fiduciary on the basis of the fiduciary’s wrongdoing are violative of public policy, so too are in terrorem clauses which attempt to preclude a beneficiary from questioning the fiduciary’s conduct (see Matter of Egerer, 30 Misc3d 1229[A], at *1-4 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 2006]).  As Surrogate Czygier has explained, “any attempt by a testator to preclude a beneficiary from questioning the conduct of the fiduciaries, from demanding an accounting from said fiduciaries or from filing objections thereto will result in a finding that the pertinent language is void as contrary to public policy and the applicable statutes of the State of New York” (see id.).

For example, in Matter of Egerer, Surrogate Czygier construed an in terrorem clause which purported to disinherit a beneficiary under the testator’s will who filed “objections to [the] fiduciaries’ conduct, bad faith or for any other basis” (see id.).  The Surrogate found that the in terrorem clause was unenforceable as a matter of public policy, to the extent that it could be interpreted as preventing the beneficiaries from objecting to the fiduciaries’ conduct (see id.).

The lesson to take away from this post is that, while testamentary intentions are entitled to great respect, there are limits to which the Surrogate’s Courts will adhere to the wishes expressed by testators, especially concerning in terrorem clauses.  Practitioners should be mindful of the limitations, including the public-policy based concerns discussed in this article, in advising their clients with respect to in terrorem provisions.

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.