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Court Rules in Will Dispute

A New York Probate Lawyer said in this probate proceeding, petitioner, by motion, seeks an order vacating a stipulation of settlement and a renunciation and disclaimer purportedly executed to effectuate the settlement.
A Nassau County Probate attorney said that decedent was survived by his spouse (petitioner) and two children of a prior marriage (respondents).

A New York Will Lawyer said the petitioner filed a petition for probate of an instrument and preliminary letters issued to her. Decedent’s son appeared by counsel in the probate proceeding and settlement negotiations ensued. The negotiations resulted in a stipulation of settlement which was “so ordered”. The settlement provided that the assets be divided into three equal parts: 1/3 to the spouse, 1/3 to the respondent, respectively, in trust.

The will had provided that the corporation of the deceased be distributed 2/3 to petitioner, decedent’s wife, and one-third to decedent’s daughter. The will further provided that the residue of the estate was to be divided 65% to the wife, 25% to the daughter, and 10% to the decedent’s sister.

New York City Probate Lawyer said decedent did not designate a beneficiary for the plan. Under the terms of the plan, petitioner became the beneficiary by default. Petitioner alleges that at the time of the execution of the stipulation she did not know that she was the beneficiary of the plan but believed instead that the estate was the beneficiary.

Manhattan Probate Lawyers said the respondents oppose the motion to vacate the stipulation alleging that (1) the agreement reflects the intention of the parties (2) the designation of the petitioner as beneficiary under the plan was irrelevant as petitioner agreed to divide testamentary and non-testamentary assets in three equal parts and (3) petitioner, as preliminary executrix, had access to the financial records of decedent and could have obtained and reviewed the terms of the plan prior to execution of the stipulation. Further, respondents contend that the renunciation executed by petitioner is irrevocable.

A contract entered into under mutual mistake of fact is voidable and subject to rescission if the mistake exists at the time the contract was negotiated. To entitle a party to rescission, the contract must rest upon the assumption of a fact as to which the parties were mistaken. A stipulation of settlement is an independent contract and the same standard applies to a motion to vacate a stipulation of settlement based upon a mutual mistake.

Petitioner’s attorney, in a supplemental affidavit, now advances a different theory in support of the motion. It is now petitioner’s position that the stipulation of settlement can be vacated without the necessity of establishing a mistake of fact.

Manhattan Probate Lawyers said the petitioner contends that the standard to be applied, where a final decree has not been signed, is whether the parties can be restored to the “status quo”. The stipulation of settlement was “so ordered.” It is both a contract and an order and can be set aside only upon a showing of fraud, collusion, mistake or such other factors as are sufficient to invalidate a contract.

Petitioner contends that the failure to vacate the stipulation of settlement would result in an injustice. Unjust enrichment is a factor to be considered on a motion to vacate a stipulation of settlement.

Respondents contend that petitioner’s lack of knowledge was the result of negligence and her ignorance cannot be used as a ground to set aside the stipulation. A party bears the risk of a mistake when he is aware, at the time a contract is made, that he has only limited knowledge with respect to the facts to which the mistake relates but treats his limited knowledge as sufficient. A party cannot rely upon her ignorance of a condition which she could have discovered using ordinary care the court denied an application by the co-administrator of decedent’s estate to reform a stipulation of settlement which provided for a distribution of the decedent’s probate and non-probate assets after she later discovered that one of the non-probate assets was a trust for her benefit, finding that her failure to ascertain the beneficiary designation on the largest of the decedent’s bank accounts could only be ascribed to negligence.

This court has recognized that “stipulations of settlement which put an end to litigation promote efficient dispute resolution and are essential to the litigation process”. Also, stipulations are especially favored where, as here, the parties have been represented by counsel. The court finds no basis upon which to vacate the stipulation of settlement and the motion for that relief is therefore denied.

Even if a basis to vacate the stipulation did exist, vacating the stipulation would not achieve the result the movant seeks in any event. As indicated, the movant also seeks an order vacating the renunciation and disclaimer which she filed. A renunciation is irrevocable once properly served and filed, when the Legislature enacted EPTL 2-1.11, it obviously intended that renunciations be unquestionably irrevocable. This was done to ensure that renunciations under EPTL 2-1.11 would constitute qualified disclaimers for federal estate tax purposes.

A last will and testament is considered as an important document that a deceased executed before his demise. It provides for his last hopes and wishes after his death including the division of his estate. Here in Stephen Bilkis and Associates, our Nassau County Probate attorneys will help the executor to implement the provisions of the will. We also have Nassau County Estate lawyers for your other concerns regarding division of an estate.

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