Articles Posted in Estate Administration

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The administrator of an estate is a fiduciary.  As such, they are held to a high standard of conduct.  They must perform their responsibilities with care and make the interests of the estate a top priority.  They must be trustworthy and must not self-deal.  If an administrator violates their duty of care, their actions can be challenged in court.  If the court concludes that the administrator was in breach of their fiduciary duty, potential consequences include reversal of the problematic transaction, suspension, or removal.

In In re Seward, on April 2, 2001, the decedent’s will was admitted to probate and letters of administration  were issued appointing co-administrators.  Nearly 20 years later, in September 2018, a petition was filed to revoke the letters of administration, to suspend the administrators as fiduciaries, and to appoint a new administrator.  The petitioners alleged that the administrators had allowed the estate to languish for nearly 20 years.  Further, the petition alleged that one of the administrators was acting against the interests of the estate.

New York law provides that the Surrogate’s Court can suspend or revoke letters issued to an estate administrator or other fiduciary. Reasons for suspending or revoking letters include evidence that the fiduciary wasted or misapplied assets, damaged estate property, removed property without approval, or failed to follow an order of the court. SCPA 711

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In this case, the United States District Court, N.D. New York considered whether the plaintiff could proceed with a lawsuit against a decedent’s estate.  The decedent had lived in New York State for many decades and had even served as the Superintendent of the Division of State Police. However, the decedent died in Conyers, Georgia in May 2019 and had been a resident of Georgia since 2012.  Despite this, plaintiff filed a lawsuit in New York against the decedent’s estate.

Under New York law, an estate is not an entity that can be sued.  Any action against an estate must be brought against the person or entity named as administrator of the estate.  At the time of the lawsuit, no one had been appointed to serve as administrator of the decedent’s estate.

The plaintiff sought to appoint a public administrator of the decedent’s estate. Under N.Y. Surr. Ct. Proc. Act Law § 1002(1)), in case of intestate estates, New York allows any interested party to petition the court to grant letters of administration to the party named in the petition.  Even though the widow of the decedent had the right to be appointed administrator, she has not sought such appointment and seemed to indicate that she did not wish to be appointed.  The plaintiff pointed out that under the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, a public administrator can be appointed if no one who had a greater right to be appointed is available or willing to serve as administrator.

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In this case the Supreme Court considered whether a wife’s claim for spousal support survives her death and can be continued by her estate. It is not unusual for a divorce proceeding to stretch out over a number of years as the parties are not able to agree on various issues.  However, in this case the couple never was able to reach a settlement and receive a judgment of divorce.  Instead, the marriage ended with the death of the wife while the divorce was still pending.

The history of this unusual case is that the couple was in the middle of a divorce proceeding that was initiated 6 years ago when the court converted the pending divorce action to a proceeding for spousal support under Article 4 of the Family Court Act.  While that proceeding was pending, the wife, who had been living in a nursing home after suffering a debilitating health crisis, died. The wife’s estate, through her executor, now seeks to continue the spousal support proceeding against the husband, thus converting the case to an estate litigation matter. The husband objects arguing that the wife’s claim for spousal support abated when the divorce proceeding ended.

The law of abatement is that for most actions abatement occurs upon the death of one of the parties if the issue involved in the case is personal in nature or involves the personal status of a party.  A marriage and divorce are certainly personal matters.  The marriage terminates upon the death of a party and the divorce action abates because there is no longer a marriage to dissolve.  Because matters of spousal support are ancillary to a divorce action, they also abate upon the abatement of the divorce action.  Thus, if this spousal support action was ancillary to the couple’s divorce, the husband would be correct in that the action would have abated.  That is not the case here

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In this case the Appellant Division considered whether a claim against an estate was time barred.

The decedent, J. Hollis, died in October 2015. She was survived by six children. The decedent’s will had a specific provision related what should be done if any of her children owed her money at the time of her death. The provision provided that any money owed was to be deducted from that child’s inheritance.

Hollis, one of the decedent’s children, died three months later, in January 2016. His wife, B. Hollis was appointed the administrator of his estate. The executor of the estate of J. Hollis filed a claim against the estate of P. Hollis for $147,265.35, representing loans J. Hollis made to P. Hollis from 2005 to 2011, as one of the duties of an executor is collecting debts owed to the estate.  From the opinion it is not clear whether P. Hollis had received a distribution from his mother’s estate. However, B. Hollis filed a motion for summary judgment disallowing so much of Peter’s claim as represented money purportedly borrowed by the decedent between April 2005 and January 2008 on the ground that recovery was barred by the six-year statute of limitations. Part of the estate administration process is to pay debts owed by the estate and settle claims against the estate.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court considered whether the actions of a person who petitioned the court for letters of administration amounted to dishonesty, making him ineligible under Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act § 707.

An executor or estate administrator is the person who is responsible for managing an estate after the death of the testator. The person is referred to as an executor if he (or she) was named in the decedent’s will. In doing so the testator is merely nominating the person.  The nominated person must still petition the Surrogate’s Court to receive “letters testamentary.” Letters testamentary is a legal document granting the authority to manage the estate and ultimately distribute its assets.  If someone other than the person named in the will wants to be manage the estate and become the estate administrator, then he must petition the court for “letters of administration.”  Without letters, whether the person was named executor in the will or not, he has no authority over the decedent’s estate. The court will only grant letters to petitioners who are eligible.

In Walsh, a brother and sister engaged in probation litigation related to the estate of their father.  While the father nominated the sister to serve as the executor of his estate, the son petitioned the Surrogate’s Court for letters of administration.  The dispute between the siblings centered on two main issues:  whether the brother was dishonest about having possession of the father’s 2000 will and whether the daughter was in possession of property owned by the father’s estate.

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One of the roles of the administrator of the estate is to bring claims on behalf of the estate.  In this case, the administrator filed a wrongful death claim on behalf of the estate of his deceased minor daughter.  The defendant responded by challenging the administrator’s eligibility to serve as estate administrator.

In New York there are rules related to who can serve as the administrator of an estate.  These rules apply whether the person was nominated in a decedent’s will to serve as the executor or the person petitions the courts to serve as the administrator of an intestate estate.  According to Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act § 707, anyone is eligible to receive letters unless he or she is ineligible.  Among those who are ineligible are felons.

In Passalacqua v. State, the claimant father of the decedent alleges that the decedent died due to the negligence of the defendant.  The claim alleges that the decedent, his 12-year old daughter, was attacked and killed by a parolee who was under the defendant’s supervision and that the defendant was “negligent, wanton, reckless and careless” in that he failed to provide reasonable and proper supervision of the parolee.

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In a will, the testator names the person or persons who he (or she) wants to serve as the executor of his estate.  The executor has a great deal of responsibility, as he will be responsible for managing the decedent’s assets, paying estate bills, and distributing them to his beneficiaries.  Upon the testator’s death, the person named in the will must petition the Surrogate’s Court to be formally appointed executor.  At that point, the person will receive letters testamentary.  While the court will give great deference to the judgement of the testator as to who is to serve as executor, the person named in the will is only a nominee.  The person must meet New York’s eligibility requirements in order for the court to issue him letters.

Under New York law, a person who is “dishonest” is not eligible to serve as a fiduciary.  This means that even if a person was nominated as an executor, if there is evidence that the person is dishonest, the Surrogate’s Court will deny his (or her) petition for letters testamentary and will prohibit him from managing the administration  of the decedent’s estate.  If the letters have already been issued, the court will revoke them.

In Matter of Kalikow, the decedent named co-executors.  Preliminary letters were issued.  However, beneficiaries under the will objected to the appointment of one of the co-executors.  They alleged that pursuant to Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act § 707, he was not eligible on the grounds of “dishonesty, improvidence, [and] want of understanding.” The court admitted the will to probate but did not issue letters testamentary.

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In the Estate of Tappan, the daughter of the decedent who was also the administrator of his estate, sought permission from the Surrogate’s Court to resign.

An executor or administrator is the person or entity that is appointed by the Surrogate’s Court to manage a decedent’s estate and distribute its assets according to the terms of the decedent’s will or according to New York’s intestate succession rules.  “Executor” is the term used when the person is named in the will, while the term “administrator” is used when person appointed is not named in a will.  In either situation, the person or entity must be formally appointed by the Surrogate’s Court and receive “letters” before he or she has the legal right to manage a decedent’s estate.

While the court will not force anyone to serve as executor or administrator, if a person takes on the role then decides that he or she no longer wishes to do the job, pursuant to SCPA § 715 he or she must petition the court and ask permission to resign.  Typically, if the administrator is qualified and has started the process of managing an estate, the court will deny a petition to resign, unless the administrator presents legitimate reasons for resigning and names a replacement.

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NY Slip Op 05266

The petitioner brought this case to enforce an oral agreement that would be void because of the statute of frauds. The petitioner’s grounds for this action are unconscionability of the statute of frauds. The court agrees that when promissory estoppel is satisfied it would be unconscionable and egregious to rely on the statute of frauds. Nonetheless, the court concludes that the petitioner can’t rely on this doctrine because the application of the statute of frauds would inflict injury on the petitioner and would be unfair. The court felt that while it would be unfair, it was not unconscionable.

The decedent owned an apartment building. His grandsons contend that before 2006, the had helped their grandfather with maintenance and snow removal on the property. Later, the grandfather asked the petitioners about taking over management duties of the property.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court considers the whether to grant a petition for guardianship of a person who suffers from intellectual and physical disabilities and is unable to care for herself.

Petitioner Laut appeals the denial of a petition she filed under SCPA Article 17-A for guardianship of her disabled sister. The sister has suffered from severe, permanent disabilities all her life. She suffers from cerebral palsy and mental retardation and requires 24-hour care. She is unable to feed herself, is non-ambulatory, and is non-verbal. Using the Bayley scale of infant and toddler development, the sister has been determined to have a developmental equivalent of a 4-month-old.

The petitioner’s parents had cared for her sister her entire life. However, they both died in 2014. While the petitioner wanted to care for her sister after their parents’ deaths, she stated that she was unable to fully do so because she did not have legal guardianship over her sister. For example, she was not able to arrange for a lease for the sister’s apartment and she was not able to maintain the sister’s supplemental nutritional program. In denying her petition for guardianship, the Surrogate’s Court stated that a hearing pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law 81 was more appropriate.

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