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Court Hears Uncontested Administratrix’s Accounting Proceeding

New York Probate Lawyer said in this uncontested administratrix’s accounting proceeding, a stipulation has been submitted to the court for its approval and incorporation into the provisions of an intermediate accounting decree.

The decedent died, testate, on the 17th day of March, 1980, survived by a spouse and an infant daughter, born of the marriage between himself and his former wife, who also survived him. Pursuant to the terms of his last will and testament, dated December 6, 1972, the decedent devised and bequeathed his real and personal property, together with the maximum amount allowable as a marital deduction under federal law, to his former spouse, and disposed of the rest, residue and remainder of his estate, in trust, for the benefit of his former spouse during her lifetime. Upon the death of his said spouse, the decedent directed that the principal of the trust estate continue to be held, in trust, for the benefit of his daughter, until she attained the age of 30, at which time, it was to be transferred and paid over to her, outright, if then living, or if not then living, to her then living issue, or if none, to a named charity. The decedent made no provision in the instrument for his second wife. As a consequence, his daughter became the sole beneficiary of his estate, by virtue of his divorce from his former spouse on October 19, 1979.
On the 8th day of July, 1980, the decedent’s former spouse, as guardian of her infant daughter’s property, filed a petition with the court requesting the probate of the decedent’s last will and testament, and the issuance to her of letters of administration. This application was unsuccessfully opposed by the decedent’s surviving spouse, whose objections to probate were dismissed in the context of a motion for summary judgment made by the guardian ad litem appointed to represent the interests of the infant in the proceeding. As a result thereof, letters of administration were issued by this court to the decedent’s former spouse on November 24, 1980, upon her posting of a bond in the sum of $20,000.00.

A New York Estate Lawyer said that approximately three months later, the decedent’s surviving spouse served and filed a notice of election against his estate. Two years thereafter, a petition to compel an accounting was filed by the decedent’s surviving spouse seeking a determination of her elective share against his estate. Although the application was initially contested by the fiduciary, the parties ultimately resolved their differences, and the proceeding was withdrawn in accordance with the terms of a stipulation of settlement requiring the fiduciary to file her account with the court within six months from the date thereof.

Brooklyn Probate Lawyers said that on the 5th day of June, 1985, the fiduciary filed the instant accounting proceeding with the court requesting (1) judicial allowance and/or rejection of various claims filed against the estate, (2) approval of a pro rata payment of those claims which were allowed, (3) fixation of counsel fees in a stated amount, and (4) authorization to pay administrator’s commissions in the sum of $6,634.03.

Bronx Probate Lawyers said that in the return date of citation, four creditors, with estimated claims of $4.9 million, appeared in the proceeding. Subsequent thereto, a stipulation was filed with the court providing, inter alia, for the payment of counsel fees in the sum of $70,000, and the settlement and satisfaction of the various debts of the estate in specified pro rata amounts. The terms of this stipulation were thereafter incorporated into the schedules of the petitioner’s account, which was amended by order of the court dated March 24, 1986, on notice to all interested parties to the proceeding. As a consequence thereof, the petitioner’s only request for relief herein became the judicial settlement of her intermediate account, subject to the court’s ratification of the propriety of the stipulation and its terms.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of objections, and/or the written consents of the persons interested in this proceeding, this court will not sanction any portion of the stipulation submitted which seeks to circumscribe its power and duty to pass upon or review any one or more of its provisions which lie within the scope of its statutory and inherent jurisdiction.

More particularly, the court addresses itself to that paragraph of the stipulation which conditions its enforcement and binding effect upon its receiving judicial approval. These kinds of all or nothing proposition leave the court little recourse but to rubber stamp the stipulation regardless of its terms, or disapprove of it in its entirety. Either alternative is but an act of blind justice which this court cannot countenance. Indeed, the court will not place its imprimatur upon any document before it without scrutiny, and it is in this light that it has reviewed the stipulation herein.

A settlement may embrace and be binding upon the court only as to those matters that are within the power of the parties to resolve without prior judicial approval. However, as to those matters that exceed this limitation, a settlement constitutes nothing more than a recommendation to the court as to the manner in which the parties desire to resolve their differences.

Indeed, so great have been the abuses, that it has triggered a policy of judicial intervention even in the absence of litigation. The jurisdiction of the court to exercise such scrutiny is beyond question and has, in fact, recently been held unassailable.

The duty and function of the courts to keep the house of the law in order does not hinge upon whether clients, worn down by injuries, delay, financial need and counsel holding the purse strings of settlement, knowing little about law or lawyers, have had the stamina to resist excessive exactions of attorneys whom they’ve retained to represent them.

Applying these principles to the case at bar, the court finds the stipulation, to the extent it effectuates a resolution and compromise by the fiduciary of the various claims against the estate to be of full force and effect and binding upon the parties to this proceeding. On the other hand, the court finds the terms of the stipulation, to the extent they encompass an extrajudicial accord as to counsel fees, to be superseded by its power and prerogative, regardless of the circumstances, to assess the reasonableness of the sum set forth.

Accordingly, after a careful evaluation and consideration of the nature, extent and details of the services performed by counsel, as well as the size of the estate and the legal fees which the court presumes will be incurred in connection with its final settlement, the court fixes and determines the fair value of counsel’s services to be in the reduced sum of $25,000.00, of which, $15,000.00 has already been paid, for all services rendered and to be rendered through the settlement of the intermediate accounting decree to be submitted herein.

Notwithstanding the foregoing modification of the fee herein awarded to counsel, the court, in all other respects, deems the stipulation between the parties to be fair and equitable, in the best interests of the estate and, therefore, binding upon the signatories thereto.

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