Pursuant to the provisions of EPTL 5-1.1-A, every surviving spouse of a domiciliary decedent is entitled to a statutory right of election. The elective share statute is intended to provide a decedent’s surviving spouse with a requisite minimum amount of his/her estate. While a surviving spouse may be disqualified from an elective share under any one of the circumstances enumerated in EPTL 5-1.2, the Surrogate’s and Appellate Courts have crafted a further ground for forfeiture when equity so requires. This was the result achieved by the Second Department’s opinion in Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010), and more recently, by the opinion rendered by the Surrogate’s Court, King’s County, in Matter of Berk, NYLJ, July 2, 2018, p. 31 (Sur Ct, Kings County), discussed below.

In In re Berk, the court held, after trial, that by virtue of her wrongdoing, the decedent’s surviving spouse had forfeited her right of election against his estate. Prior to thihttps://www.nyestatelitigationblog.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=16851&action=edit#edit_timestamps result, the Berk estate had been the subject of two opinions by the Appellate Division, Second Department. In the first, the Court reversed an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.) 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. The Court further ruled that the appellants’ counterclaims alleging undue influence were improperly dismissed. In the second opinion, the Court modified an order of the same court 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.

At the trial of the matter that followed, the Surrogate’s Court framed three issues to be heard, lodged principally in whether the decedent possessed the requisite mental capacity to marry the petitioner, or alternatively, whether the petitioner unduly influenced the decedent to marry her for her own pecuniary benefit.

On the issue of capacity, the court found the record replete with credible evidence that the decedent suffered from both physical and mental impairments, and manifested significant hearing loss, and periods of confusion. Additionally, the court noted that on the day prior to his purported marriage to the petitioner, the decedent was unable to accurately complete the marriage license application, and made critical mistakes in the listing of his address, his place of birth, and his mother’s maiden name. Moreover, the court noted that in a photograph taken on his wedding day, the decedent appeared dazed and confused.

The court opined that the standard of capacity for marriage is whether each party to the contract was able to understand the nature, effect, and consequences of his or her actions. Within this context, and based on the “plethora” of credible evidence presented, the court concluded that the decedent was incapable of understanding or consenting to his marriage to the petitioner, and that the petitioner was well aware of his incapacity at the time the marriage was entered. Indeed, in view of the fact that the petitioner was the decedent’s primary caretaker and had ample opportunity to observe him in his daily routine, as well as the fact that she had experience in the medical field, the court found “it impossible to believe that the petitioner did not know of the decedent’s mental incapacity.”

Moreover, after considering the indicia of undue influence including the decedent’s physical and mental condition, the secrecy in which the marriage was entered, the petitioner’s control over the decedent’s daily needs, and her direction over his lifetime affairs as evidenced by the decedent’s handwritten notes that petitioner had apparently dictated, the court held that petitioner had the motive and opportunity to influence the decedent’s actions, and that she actually exercised undue influence over him in procuring their marriage.

Relying on the opinion by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010), the court observed that where a marriage has been wrongfully procured, the statutory right of election which would have emanated from such marriage will be forfeited. Accordingly, based on the record, the court denied petitioner’s request for an elective share of the decedent’s estate.

 

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.

This month, the Second Department has issued two important decisions on entitlement to an elective share when a marriage occurred while the decedent lacked the requisite mental capacity to enter into a marital contract. Matter of Berk and Campbell v Thomas were both cases in which a caregiver secretly married the incapacitated individual for whom she worked, in an effort to manipulate a testamentary scheme for her own financial gain.   Although the statutory limitations on disqualification from the right of election did not infringe upon the “surviving spouses’” rights to inherit from their respective “husbands” (see EPTL §5-1.2), the Appellate Division followed equitable principles in determining the parties’ respective rights.

In Matter of Berk, 20 Misc 3d 691 (Sur Ct, Kings County 2008), summary judgment was granted to the “surviving spouse” on the issue of her entitlement to an elective share, despite the suspicious circumstances surrounding her marriage to the decedent.  A discussion of the lower court’s decision can be found in a prior entry. To briefly recap, the decedent’s “spouse” had been the decedent’s live-in caretaker since 1997. By the time the two secretly married in 2005, he had become completely dependent upon her. In fact, the marriage occurred almost exactly one year prior to his death, when he was 99 years old (she was 47), was suffering from dementia, and had been deemed by a physician to be incapable of entering into binding contracts or managing his social affairs.   The lower court dismissed these facts as irrelevant for purposes of determining entitlement to the right of election.  Rather, it limited its inquiry to (1) whether the petitioner was the decedent’s surviving spouse upon his death, i.e., whether the marriage was void under the circumstances; and (2) whether any of the disqualifying factors of EPTL §5-1.2 had been met.  Because the petitioner demonstrated that she was the surviving spouse at the time of the decedent’s death, as the marriage was potentially voidable but not void according to DRL §7, the Surrogate held that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Indeed, the result of the determination that the marriage was voidable, not void, foreclosed inquiry into the validity of the marriage because no steps were taken to void the marriage during the decedent’s lifetime.  But under the circumstances, where the marriage in issue had been kept a secret by the petitioner while the decedent was alive, no such steps could possibly have been taken.

In overturning the Surrogate’s decision, the Second Department recognized the existence of “a triable issue of fact as to whether the petitioner had forfeited the statutory right of election” on equitable grounds. In particular, relying on Campell v Thomas (2010 NY Slip Op 02082 [2d Dept 2010]), the Court stated that the estate had presented evidence that could prove the petitioner was aware of the decedent’s incapacity and inability to consent to marriage, and deliberately took “unfair advantage . . . by marrying that person for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits that becomes available by virtue of being that person’s spouse, at the expense of that person’s intended beneficiaries" (Matter of Berk, 2010 NY Slip Op 02139 [2d Dept 2010]). Thus, the order was modified, denying the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment, and reinstating counterclaims.

In sum, while the lower court’s holding was based upon statutory authority, equity was the cause for its reversal. The Appellate Division explained its rationale for this determination in further detail in its simultaneous decision in the very similar case of Campbell v Thomas.

In Campbell, the decedent was suffering from severe dementia and terminal cancer when he and his short-term caregiver, Nidia, who stayed with the decedent while his daughter went on vacation, were married.   Immediately thereafter, while the decedent’s daughter was still away, Nidia transferred the decedent’s Citibank account from the decedent’s name to the couple jointly, and named herself the sole beneficiary of his retirement account. 

Continue Reading Appellate Division Cites Equitable Factors In Denying Entitlement to Elective Share

Last year, we posted an entry on Matter of Berk, 20 Misc 3d 691 (Sur Ct, Kings County 2008), a decision in which the court granted an elective share to a surviving spouse notwithstanding evidence that the marriage to the decedent, who was 99 years old at the time, occurred under highly questionable circumstances. The court’s rationale was that the marriage was voidable, not void. The Surrogate held that because the marriage was not invalidated prior to the decedent’s death, the right of election could not be disturbed.

In Matter of Kaminester, 2009 NY Slip Op 29429 (Sur Ct, New York County), the court addressed a similar set of facts, but with one distinguishing factor: prior to his death, the decedent had been adjudicated incapacitated in an Article 81 proceeding. This fact allowed for an entirely different result than that reached in Berk.

 

In Kaminester, the decedent’s estate sought a determination as to the validity of the elective share pursuant to SCPA §1421. As in Berk, the marriage remained a secret until the decedent’s death, and occurred mere months prior thereto. But in this case, the marriage also occurred two and a half months after a Texas court appointed a temporary guardian for the decedent, and during the pendency of an Article 81 proceeding in New York. Within the context of the Article 81, a temporary restraining order had been imposed with respect to removing the decedent from the State, among other things. The Article 81 proceeding resulted in the appointment of a temporary guardian, and a stipulation on the record that the decedent lacked capacity to marry. The decedent’s new “wife” was in the courtroom with her attorney at the time of the stipulation, but neither one revealed the existence of the couple’s recent marriage.

 

Notably, during this time period, the beneficiary designation on the decedent’s life insurance policy, worth over $1 million, was changed to favor his new “wife.” In addition, a deed was executed transferring the decedent’s Westhampton property to the couple as joint tenants with right of survivorship.

 

The “wife” filed a notice of election within weeks of the decedent’s death. Thereafter, the executor of his estate sought an order from the Article 81 court to hold her in contempt for violating its TRO. In response, the court invoked Section 81.29(d) of the Mental Hygiene Law, and “revoked and voided” the marriage, the designation of the “wife” as beneficiary on the decedent’s life insurance, and the deed that transferred to her a joint tenancy interest in his Westhampton property. The First Department affirmed these portions of the Article 81 court’s decision, accepting the posthumous voidance of the decedent’s marriage.

 

Surrogate Glen of New York County subsequently addressed the issue of the elective share, and thus the validity of the marriage, in light of these events. She discussed Section 7 of the Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”), the statute that had been relied upon in Berk, and compared it to Section 81.29(d) of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”). DRL §7 provides that a marriage involving an individual “incapable of consenting to a marriage for want of understanding” is voidable, and becomes a nullity as of the date it is annulled. In contrast, Section 81.29(d) of the MHL “permits the court that appoints an article 81 guardian for an incapacitated person to “’revoke any previously executed . . . contract. . . . made by the incapacitated person prior to the appointment of the guardian if the court finds that the previously executed . . . contract. . . was made by the person was incapacitated’” (Matter of Kaminester, 2009 NY Slip Op 29429 at *5). Thus, the Article 81 adjudication was the lynchpin of the Kaminester decision.

 

In her decision, the Surrogate questioned whether the legislature had intended MHL §81.29(d) to override DRL §7. She also recognized that while she was bound by the First Department’s determination, the Second Department had previously taken the position that it had inherent power to override DRL § 7 by posthumously voiding a marriage due to the decedent’s mental incapacity (see Campbell v Thomas,36 AD3d 576 [2d Dept 2007]).   Nonetheless, because of the First Department’s determination that the decedent’s marriage had been void ab initio as a result of his incapacity, the Surrogate opined that there existed no right to an elective share.

 

Notably, the result in Kaminester rendered the marriage in issue void, as opposed to voidable, which was the characterization in Berk. A voidable marriage is a nullity upon the court’s declaration, whereas a void marriage is deemed to never have existed. This distinction was based upon the fact that there had been an Article 81 adjudication in Kaminester, allowing for the application of MHL §81.29(d) after the decedent’s death.