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.

While attorney’s fees incurred by the fiduciary are generally reimburseable from an estate as a reasonable and necessary expense of administration, this is not the rule with respect to the legal fees incurred by a beneficiary. The different standard that applies was recently examined by Surrogate Mella in In re Frey, NYLJ, July 25, 2013, p. 25 (Sur. Ct. New York County).

Before the court was an application brought by counsel for a beneficiary to have its legal fees fixed for services rendered to the beneficiary in connection with her interest in the estate of her late mother. The executor of the estate did not oppose the application provided that the fees were charged to the beneficiary’s interest in the estate.

           

The record revealed that the services performed by counsel over a two year period resulted in its client in receiving emergency and regular distributions from the estate, loans against her legacy, and personal property that she was unable to obtain previously.  Since completing its work, counsel has not been able to contact its client and has not been paid.

           

The court noted that in a proceeding for the fixation of fees pursuant to SCPA 2110, the court is authorized to direct the source of payment either from the estate generally, or from the funds in the hands of the fiduciary belonging to the legatee. In examining this issue, the court relied on the factors outlined by the Court of Appeals in Matter of Hyde, 15 NY3d 186 (2010), that is: (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.

 

Based on this criteria, the court concluded that in pursuing her claim against the fiduciary, the beneficiary was not seeking to benefit or enlarge the estate, but only to secure her legacy. The court determined that there was no possibility that the other beneficiaries of the estate would benefit from the legal services performed, and thus, that it would be unfair to assess the other beneficiaries with the fees incurred.

Accordingly, the court fixed the fees and disbursements of counsel and directed that they be paid from its client’s share of the estate.

Although exoneration clauses in a testamentary trust will not, as a matter of public policy, absolve a trustee of liability for failure to exercise reasonable care, diligence and prudence (EPTL §11-1.7(a)(1)), there is no comparable statutory provision with respect to exoneration clauses in lifetime trusts. Nevertheless, the court, in Matter of Accounting of Tydings, NYLJ, July 7, 2011, at p. 26 (Sur Ct, Bronx County), found reason, despite the exoneration clause in the inter vivos trust instrument, to hold the trustee liable.

In Tydings, the court had the opportunity to opine on the effect of the exoneration clause in the subject trust, commissions, and the legal fees incurred by the petitioner and objectant. The objectant in the proceeding was the grantor and income beneficiary of the trust, with a discretionary interest in the principal. The ultimate remainderman of the trust was the grantor’s infant son.

With regard to the issue of the exoneration clause, the trust instrument authorized, inter alia, the trustee to retain an original investment for any length of time without liability for such retention, and to act on behalf of the trust and herself or another entity with regard to any transaction in which the trustee and the trust or the other entity had an interest. The trust also provided that the trustee would not be responsible for any loss to the trust unless such loss resulted from bad faith or fraud on the part of the trustee, and that the trustee would not be disqualified from acting because the trustee held an interest in any property or entity in which the trust also held an interest. The court noted that several of the objections raised in the proceeding hinged, inter alia, on the enforceability of this exoneration clause.

To this extent, the court opined that despite the absence of a statute applicable to exoneration clauses contained in lifetime trusts (cf. EPTL 11-1.7(a)(1)), the enforceability of such clauses were nevertheless subject to certain defined limitations. For instance, the court observed that a trustee of a lifetime trust who is guilty of wrongful negligence, impermissible self-dealing, bad faith or reckless indifference to the interests of the beneficiaries will not be shielded from liability by an exoneration clause. Moreover, when an attorney, named as trustee, is the draftsperson of the instrument containing an exoneration clause, the clause limiting the trustee’s liability to bad faith acts is void as against public policy. Further, the court noted that while improper self-dealing will not come under the umbrella of an exoneration clause, the rule of undivided loyalty due from a trustee may be relaxed by appropriate language in the trust instrument which directly or indirectly recognizes the trustee may be in a position of conflict with the trust.

Within this context, the court held that the petitioner would not be liable with respect to an interest-free loan that pre-existed the creation of the trust and that had been transferred into the trust by the grantor. On the other hand, the court found the petitioner liable for interest-free loans made by the trust subsequent to the inception of her stewardship. To this extent, the court concluded that petitioner’s conduct exhibited a complete indifference to the best interests of the objectant, mandating that she be surcharged for the income lost on the loan transactions.

Additionally, the court found that the exoneration clause in the instrument did not bar the objectant from recovering lost profits from the trustee attributable to her use of trust funds, without consideration, to benefit an entity in which she was personally interested.

As to the balance of the objections, the court concluded that the objectant was either estopped from raising the issues, or did not warrant the imposition of a surcharge.

With respect to the issue of commissions, the court opined that while not every surcharge warrants a denial of commissions, when the fiduciary has engaged in conduct evidencing bad faith, a complete indifference to his/her duties and responsibilities, or some act of malfeasance or misfeasance, commissions will be denied. Based on the record, the court found that the petitioner was lax with regard to managing the financial aspects of the trust. Indeed, although the court concluded that the petitioner had not acted in bad faith, it, nevertheless, held, particularly based on the interest-free loans that had been made, that she had exhibited indifference to her duties, and, accordingly, sufficient misfeasance to warrant a denial of commissions. Further, the court denied the petitioner annual commissions on the grounds that she had failed to establish that she had furnished the objectant with an annual statement pursuant to the provisions of SCPA 2309, that the objectant had waived her right to receive the statement, or that there was sufficient income retained by the trust in any particular year from which she could pay herself income commissions.

Finally, with regard to the issue of legal fees, the court held, in the exercise of discretion, that the petitioner and the objectant should each, individually, bear responsibility for their legal fees and expenses. The court observed that while many of the objections to the petitioner’s account had not been sustained, the petitioner could not seek payment of fees from the trust for defending objections for which she was surcharged. Moreover, the court opined that a strong case could be made for holding the petitioner responsible for the expert witness fees incurred by the objectant in proving petitioner’s liability in connection with the transactions for which she was surcharged. On the other hand, the court noted that the objectant vigorously pursued, and caused the petitioner to defend, numerous objections of which she was aware and had approved prior to their occurrence. Accordingly, under all the circumstances, the court determined it would be most equitable to have the petitioner and the objectant to personally satisfy their own legal fees in connection with the proceeding.

Jurisdictions within the United States have generally rejected the British concept of the prevailing party’s shifting the burden of litigation expenses to the losing party. Instead, we follow what is commonly known as the American Rule, under which each party typically bears the burden of his own legal fees, win or lose. However, like most other rules we face in the legal profession, certain circumstances are considered exceptions. Surrogate Glen of New York County recently addressed the question of whether a particular situation rose to the level of such an exception in Matter of Lasdon, 11/19/10 NYLJ 25 (Sur Ct, New York County).

In Lasdon, objectants to two trust accountings sought leave to reargue three of the Court’s rulings in its June decision that addressed the conduct of one of the co-trustees, and resulted in a surcharge. At the core of the contested accounting was the co-trustee’s delay in making the final distribution upon each trust’s termination, which resulted in trust assets declining in value. His delay was intentional, attributable to his desire to resolve certain issues pertaining to other family trusts with his sister and co-trustee, prior to making the distribution.  

In seeking reargument, objectants contended that the Court erred in denying their requests that (1) the co-trustee be barred from receiving his attorneys’ fees from the trust; (2) that the co-trustee be disallowed commissions; and (3) that the co-trustee be directed to absorb the objectants’ legal fees. Addressing the objectants’ motion, the Court explained that it did not misapprehend the law or overlook the facts in determining that the surcharged co-trustee is entitled to annual commissions and to have his legal fees and costs paid by the trusts. Nonetheless, Surrogate Glen noted that the issue that objectants raised in connection with the co-trustee’s payment of their legal fees warranted further discussion.

Although New York courts generally follow the American Rule, Surrogate Glen explained there are some exceptions. Hence, a prevailing party’s litigation costs may be shifted to the loser in situations where there is a statutory or contractual provision that when strictly construed, supports such a shift. Further, and most relevant here, a prevailing party’s legal expenses may be shifted when the losing party is a fiduciary who has been surcharged for causing harm to his estate or trust (Matter of Lasdon, 11/19/10 NYLJ 25 [Sur Ct, New York County], citing Matter of Garvin, 256 NY 518 [1931]; Matter of Hidden, 243 NY 499 [1926]; Matter of Marsh, 265 AD2d 253 [1st Dept 1999]). 

The court referred to the Court of Appeals’ holding in the seminal case of Matter of Hidden, supra, as instructive. There, it was determined that the estate of an incompetent suffered a loss as “direct results of wrong found” on the part of her committee.   Accordingly, the Court held that the expenses of litigating to protect the estate’s interests were “amounts ‘for which the delinquent fiduciary may be held accountable’” (Matter of Lasdon, supra, at *5 quoting Matter of Hidden, 243 NY 499 [1926]).

The Surrogate went on to explain that the Hidden decision itself gave no indication that every surcharged fiduciary should pay the legal expenses of every objectant, nor have the cases that followed it. Rather, Surrogate Glen interpreted Hidden and its descendant line of cases as warranting exceptions to the American Rule when fiduciaries enrich themselves “at the expense of the funds with which they have been entrusted” (id. at *6), or, in at least one case that did not involve bad faith, where the fiduciary’s actions caused “manifest . . . deficiencies in the administration of the estate” (id. quoting Matter of Campbell, 134 Misc 2d 960 [Sur Ct, Columbia County 1987], aff’d 138 AD2d 827 [3d Dept 1988]).

Applying the foregoing rationale to Lasdon, the court noted that while the co-trustee had been surcharged for his misconduct, there had been no self-dealing. Further, applying the reasoning of Campbell, the court stated that the Lasdon co-trustee’s delaying in the final distribution “[did] not unequivocally bespeak a malign or self-serving purpose” (Matter of Lasdon at *8). Consequently, it held that the facts did not warrant the imposition of the objectants’ litigation expenses upon the surcharged co-trustee.

It appears that the rationale for applying the exception to the American Rule in fiduciary situations is extremely similar to that applied when analyzing whether a fiduciary’s misconduct is so egregious as to result in his individual responsibility for his own legal fees. Indeed, if a fiduciary’s malfeasance rises to the level contemplated by Hidden and he must individually compensate the prevailing party for his litigation expenses, why should the cost of defending his improper actions be borne by the trust or estate that he was entrusted to serve? I would submit that in the vast majority of cases it should not. Thus, litigators should keep this exception to the American Rule in mind. Perhaps requests that a fiduciary be individually charged with his legal expenses when appropriate should routinely be coupled with requests to shift to the fiduciary the litigation costs of the prevailing objectant as well.

In Matter of Hyde, 2010 NY Slip Op 05676, decided June 29, 2010, the Court of Appeals held that SCPA 2110 gives Surrogate’s Courts discretion to determine the allocation of attorneys fees paid from the trust or estate to the fiduciary in defending against objections, assuming the fiduciary’s conduct was not deemed so egregious as to require him to be individually responsible for payment.

The facts in Hyde are summarized in detail in a prior post that addressed the Appellate Division’s decision, which has now been modified by the high court.  In short, the beneficiaries who decided not to interpose objections to the trustees’ accountings sought an order directing that the trustees’ legal fees in defending against the objections be deducted solely from the objecting beneficiaries’ shares – not from the trust estates generally.  That way, the beneficiaries who did not object would not have their inheritance diminished by litigation in which they decided not to participate, and from which they would not benefit.  

Although the Surrogate’s Court dismissed all objections to the accountings, it relied on the Court of Appeals’ earlier holding in Matter of Dillon, 28 NY2d 597 (1971), and held that the trustees’ legal fees were to be paid from the trusts generally, and not simply from the objecting beneficiaries’ shares.  The Appellate Division affirmed.  

Surprisingly, the Court of Appeals did not simply distinguish Dillon from the case before it; the Court reconsidered Dillon.  It opined that its decision in Dillon, where it held that SCPA 2110 mandated that the entire estate or trust be charged with the fiduciary’s legal fees, apparently ignored the plain meaning of the statute.  

SCPA 2110[2] provides that “ . . . [t]he court may direct payment for [a fiduciary’s legal fees] from the estate generally or from the funds in the hands of the fiduciary belonging to any legatee, devisee, distributee, or person interested.”  Noting that legislative intent should be ascertained from the plain meaning of the statute, the Court explained that there exists a presumption against legislative intent for an unjust or unreasonable result.  It further stated that its decision in Matter of Ungrich, 201 NY 415 [1911], rather than Dillon, should be used as a guide.  Matter of Ungrich, like the Court’s holding in Hyde, focused on fairness.  There, it was held that courts should have the discretion to direct whether a fiduciary’s legal fees should be paid by him individually, from the estate generally, or from individual beneficiaries’ shares.

In deferring to the plain meaning of the statute, the Hyde Court directed that Surrogates should assess the sources from which fees are to be paid, considering various factors such as:

 (1) whether the objecting beneficiary acted solely in his or her interest or in the common interest of  the estate; (2) the possible benefits to individual beneficiaries from the outcome of the underlying proceeding; (3) the extent of an individual beneficiary’s participation in the proceeding; (4) the good or bad faith of the objecting beneficiary; (5) whether there was justifiable doubt regarding the fiduciary’s conduct; (6) the portions of interest in the estate held by the non-objecting beneficiaries relative to the objecting beneficiaries; and (7) the future interests that could be affected by reallocation of fees to individual beneficiaries instead of to the corpus of the estate generally.

According to the Court, none of the above factors are determinative.

In view of the foregoing, the Court of Appeals remanded Hyde to the trial court for an analysis in accordance with its newly established guidelines, and an ultimate determination as to who would bear the cost of the trustees’ legal fees in defending their accountings.  

This decision has clearly implemented a process that should result in more equitable allocations of a fiduciary’s legal expenses where applicable.  But it may also have the effect of causing potential objectants to weigh the pros and cons of litigation even more carefully, especially when all beneficiaries are not on board with the decision.

 

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.