In 2010, the Appellate Division, Second Department, made it clear in two decisions — Matter of Berk and Campbell v. Thomas — that principles of equity grounded in rules of forfeiture can adversely impact a surviving spouse’s entitlement to an elective share. The Second Department recently addressed the Berk matter again, specifically with respect to the issues to be determined and burdens of proof to be imposed at trial. Ilene Cooper discusses the decision in our latest entry.
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In the recent case of Matter of Cheek, Surrogate Holzman of Bronx County addressed two issues that arise with some frequency in the context of Surrogate’s Court litigation – the validity of a decedent’s marriage, and a party’s attempt to vacate a stipulation of settlement. Jaclene D’Agostino discusses the decision in our latest entry.
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Should a surviving spouse remain entitled to an elective share even if the marriage was procured by fraud or undue influence exercised upon the decedent, or if the decedent was incapacitated at the time of the marriage?  In a recent case, Matter of Berk (20 Misc 3d 691 [Sur Ct, Kings County 2008]), the decedent’s estate opposed his widow’s notice of election alleging that circumstances of the marriage rendered it null and void ab initio, thereby eliminating her rights pursuant to EPTL 5-1.1-A.  She moved for summary judgment. 

The decedent died in 2006, leaving a will dated July 10, 1982.  The marriage occurred almost exactly one year prior to the decedent’s death; he was 99 at the time, she was 47.  Interestingly enough, the couple’s marital status had been concealed, and it was only after the decedent’s death that his family learned of the situation.  According to the estate, at the time of the marriage the decedent lacked the requisite mental capacity “to understand the nature, effect and consequences of marriage, or to enter into a marriage contract” (id.).  The estate further claimed that the evidence suggested that the decedent’s consent to the marriage was obtained by force, duress or fraud exercised by his widow.  The Court held that even assuming the truth of these allegations, they were irrelevant on the motion for summary judgment, and granted the widow her elective share.


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