Articles Posted in Staten Island

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The petition presents an issue under the doctrine of ‘incorporation by reference’ as applied to wills. The petitioner a sister of the testator, presents an unwitnessed holographic instrument executed January 9, 1968 (‘January instrument’) and also a duly executed instrument (which has been proved as a will) dated February 20, 1968 (‘February will’).

The January holographic instrument necessarily must be denied probate. It was executed in New York; the decedent was not a member of the armed forces; it is unwitnessed. (EPTL 3–2.2, 3–2.1.) As already noted the February will has been duly proved. The January instrument disposes ‘of my entire personal estate’ to the petitioner.

The February will provides: ‘FIRST: I ratify and confirm all wills heretofore made by me at any time in every respect, except insofar as the same is inconsistent with the provisions of this codicil. SECOND: I direct that any monies realized from any and all Stocks and Bonds in my name be divided equally between: (listing three brothers and his sister petitioner herein).’

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Plaintiff moves pursuant to CPLR § 3213 for an Order granting summary judgment in lieu of complaint for payment allegedly owed on a promissory note. “Defendants” or “the Estate”, as executors of the Estate of the decedent cross-move for summary judgment dismissing this proceeding pursuant to § 1810 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act.

This case arises from a loan transaction between plaintiff and the decedent a real estate developer. Prior to his death, he was a 55% owner in Flatbush Extension, LLC (“Flatbush Extension”), which owned properties located at 67, 75, and 85 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. On or about March 27, 2007, U.S. Bank and Flatbush Extension entered into a secured loan agreement (the “Loan Agreement”) pursuant to which the parties agreed that Flatbush Extension could borrow up to $50,000,000 in connection with the development of a luxury condominium project (“Flatbush Extension Project”).

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In a proceeding to probate the last will and testament of the decedent respondent appeals (1) from an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, dated October 14, 1992, which (a) denied her motion, inter alia, to declare that the decedent was domiciled in Florida at the time of his death and to resettle a decree of the same court, dated August 7, 1992, to provide that the decedent was not a New York domiciliary, and (b) granted the administrator’s cross motion for a decree declaring that . validly exercised her right of election and that the decedent was domiciled in New York at the time of his death, and (2) as limited by her brief, from so much of an order of the same court, dated March 17, 1993, as directed the Dime Savings Bank to deliver the entire balance in Account No. 800003241 to the administrator.

The Surrogate erred in finding that the decedent was a domiciliary of New York at the time of his death as the appellant demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent had changed his domicile from New York to Florida. Contrary to the recitation in the August 7, 1992, decree and plaintiff’s contention, the appellant did not stipulate that New York was the decedent’s domicile. The record of the proceedings before the Surrogate on July 7, 1992, does not reflect any such agreement.

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In a probate proceeding in which legatee petitioned pursuant to SCPA to compel the payment of a legacy, nonparty appeals, by permission, from so much of an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, dated December 4, 2008, as, sua sponte, disqualified his law firm, and all members and associates of that firm, from appearing as the petitioner’s attorney.

The appellant was employed for many years as chief court attorney of the law department of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (hereinafter the Law Department). In February 2008, shortly after retiring from government service, he joined the Rubenstein firm, a small law firm specializing in estate practice. Prior to his association, the Rubenstein firm was composed of only two other attorneys. In late November or early December 2006, before appellant left his employment as chief court attorney, the firm was retained to represent the petitioner in this Surrogate’s Court proceeding.

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The residuary clause of the will of the decedent dated December 2, 1999, which was admitted to probate on August 16, 2001, reads as follows: “All the rest, residue and remainder of the property which I may own at the time of my death, real and personal, and whosesoever the same may be situate.” There is no more. The name of the intended beneficiary of the residuary is missing. As a practical matter, the residuary clause amounts to only 10% of the estate, since the will made pre-residuary bequests of 90% of the net estate.

The executrix of the will, has petitioned for construction of the will by reading the residuary clause to be the same as decedent’s prior will dated June 18, 1997. The residuary clause of the 1997 will provided: “All the rest, residue and remainder of the property which I may own at the time of my death, real and personal, and whosesoever the same may be situate I give, devise and bequeath to my nephew, per stirpes. In the event that my nephew, does not survive me, his share shall go to his wife.”

The decedent’s nephew died on November 25, 2000, without issue and the decedent died on November 30, 2000. The persons who would take the decedent’s estate in intestacy are a niece, and a great nephew. The decedent’s niece has filed a consent to the relief requested in the petition for construction. The decedent’s nephew defaulted in appearing on the return day of the proceeding. The attorney-draftsperson of the will, has filed an affidavit stating that when the 1997 will was redrafted in 1999, using computer software “some lines from the residuary clause were accidentally deleted.”

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In these two proceedings to compel the production of the wills of the decedent, the children of the decedent, who are also the stepchildren of the testator, ask the court to seal the documents which have been produced by the respondent. By petitions dated July 25, 2008, petitioners sought to compel the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to produce documents in their possession purporting to be the wills of the testators. Pursuant to SCPA 1401, the court directed the NYPD to produce any documents in their possession purporting to be the decedents’ wills in court on August 12, 2008.

On August 12, 2008, counsel for the petitioners, counsel for the testator’s parents, and counsel for the NYPD appeared in court. The NYPD complied with the order and turned over the documents to the court. Asserting that matters contained in the documents may cause embarrassment to the decedents and their families, the petitioners, joined by the testator’s parents and the NYPD, made an oral application to seal the documents. The court declined to entertain the oral application and instead provided the petitioners, and the testator’s parents, as well as the NYPD, with an opportunity to submit their written application by August 14, 2008. In the interim, the court has maintained the relevant documents in chambers. The petitioners submitted their written application, while the testator’s parents and the NYPD did not.

The issue in this case is whether the NYPD can be compelled to produce the documents in their possession purporting to be the wills of the testators.

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The Appellate Division has affirmed a decree of the surrogate of Kings County, which admitted to probate the will of the deceased, and which construed certain of its provisions. It consisted of two instruments, a will and a codicil, both of which were wholly written by the testator and were executed a few years before his death. The testator died April 9, 1909, unmarried and leaving no descendants. The will was executed in 1899. By its first and second articles the testator gave to his nieces respectively, legacies of $75,000 and $50,000. He directed that the two legacies should be held in trust, and that ‘the income shall be paid only to said legatees respectively and an amount of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) of the principal may be paid to each of them if they so elect when they attain the age of 30 years, to purchase and furnish a home.

The remainder of their respective legacies shall remain in trust and in case of the death of either of them without issue, before the death of their legatee under Art. IV herein, then the share of such decedent shall in such event revert to her the said Inez Hoffman. And in case either said nieces should die without issue subsequently to the death of their Aunt they said and prior to the death of their grandmother then in such case their respective shares shall in like manner revert to their grandmother.’ Article 3 gave to his brother, a plantation in Louisiana. By article 4 the testator gave to his sister, , known in the family as a legacy of $125,000, to be held in trust ‘and the income thereof to be paid to herself only, with this proviso however that she may if she wish draw not exceeding Ten Thousand dollars ($10,000) with which to purchase and furnish a home for herself. In case of her death without issue and prior to that of her mother, all her interest herein shall revert to her mother.’ He also gave to her all his ‘interest in and to the estate’ of his mother. By article 6 the testator appoints his mother his ‘residuary legatee, the amount to be placed in trust as herein provided in Art. VIII, for her sole benefit, and the income come thereof to be paid to her.

At her death, the principal and any accumulated income there may be shall be divided pro rata between the legatees named in articles I, II, and IV herein respectively upon the basis of their respective legacies herein and to be subject to the same trust restrictions stated herein appertaining to their several legacies hereunder.’ By article 8 the testator appointed the Union Trust Company of the city of New York as the trustee for the trusts in his will and as the executor thereof. A year later the testator executed the codicil. By that instrument he, first revoked the legacies given in article 4 of the will to his sister Inez and substituted in place thereof the sum of ‘$25,000, SUBJECT TO ALL THE CONDITIONS and terms as expressed in said art. iv, with this exception to wit: that the sum of $2,500, instead of ten thousand dollars, be allowed her out of said amount for purchase of a home for herself if she so elects.’ Next he bequeathed to his sister, the sum of $35,000 and to his brother, the sum of $10,000, and then provided as follow: ‘And I hereby make these two legatees, upon the death of my mother, pro rata residuary legatees under the terms and conditions as set forth in Art. VI herein, as additional residuary legatees. The above legacy to his brother is in addition to the one in his favor under Art. III herein.’

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The two case hereunder is about probate proceedings.

The first case is the proceeding to establish a lost will pursuant to Surrogate’s Court Act, § 143. The testimony of the two subscribing witnesses establishes that decedent executed a will on or about February 27, 1948, in full compliance with the provisions of Decedent Estate Law, § 21 and that at that time he was of sound mind and under no restraint.

The attorney-draftsman, who was also one of the subscribing witnesses, testified that the will was turned over to decedent’s son for safekeeping immediately upon its execution. He further testified that he made an exact carbon copy of the original will which he conformed and kept in his files. The said carbon counterpart has been offered for probate by petitioner as decedent’s will.

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The proceeding before the court is one for construction of paragraph “THIRD” of the will of the decedent. It has a long and checkered history before the court. The facts, not complex in themselves, but made so because of the number of parties and their constantly altering positions, unfortunately, requires review in detail to do justice to all. The legal issues presented are unusual and present questions of procedure as well as substance, not typically found in probate proceedings. Under paragraph THIRD of his will, the testator bequeathed his residuary estate, valued upon the accounting at $50,393.65, to “The Franciscan Fathers, Christ the King Seminary, St. Bonaventure University, Olean, New York, with the request that High Masses be said for the repose of my Soul and the repose of the Soul of my said wife. The question of the identity of the residuary legatee or legatees first arose on proceedings for judicial settlement.

On October 18, 1976, court was convened on the construction proceeding pursuant to order for the purpose of taking such proof and making such decree as justice requires pursuant to provisions of Sec. 1420, Subd. (1) of SCPA. The attorney for the executrix was called as a witness. His testimony, given without objection, was as follows: He was the scrivener of the will; he had known the testator and his wife for several years and had been their attorney on prior occasions; he had drawn the will of the testator’s wife as well as the testator; the testator’s wife for several years had been an employee of one of the Franciscan Friars at St. Bonaventure University; illness had compelled her to cease her employment immediately before the wills were prepared; under her will, the wife provided for a legacy to the Friars at St. Bonaventure University; the testator and his wife were very close; the provisions for the bequest of the residuary estate of the testator’s will had been influenced by his wife’s position.

The attorney-scrivener testified that he knew the intention of the testator from his conversations with him. He swore on at least three occasions that he had been given specific direction that the residuary legacy was to be given to the “Franciscan Friars at St. Bonaventure, N.Y.”. The emphasis of the direction of the testator was to geography and to location. As to the phrasing employed in identifying the legatee, the attorney-scrivener testified: “If there is any inadvertence in the third paragraph or confusion as to its interpretation, its simply the manner in which I worded the phrase”. The attorney-scrivener testified that he had not known that there was a separate Friary that operated in connection with the Seminary and was of the opinion that the testator did not know that fact either, although the matter had not been specifically discussed.

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The two cases hereunder is about probate proceedings.In the first case involves a contested probate proceeding, the Court determines that the propounded instrument was not executed as required by Decedent Estate Law, § 21. This statute requires by subdivision 2 thereof, that decedent’s subscription of the instrument shall be made in the presence of each of the attesting witnesses or shall be acknowledged by him to have been so made to each of such witnesses. By subdivision 3 thereof, the statute requires the decedent to declare that the instrument subscribed by him was his last will and testament. Compliance with only one of these requirements may not be urged to constitute compliance with the other. Since decedent did not subscribe her name in the presence of the witness, Glackman, it was necessary that she acknowledge such signature to this witness. This she did not do. The fact that decedent may have declared the instrument to be her will, as required by subdivision 3, does not serve as a compliance with subdivision 2. In re Banta’s Will, 204 Misc. 985, 128 N.Y.S.2d 334. This is especially so where, as here, the appended signature is in a foreign language which the witness cannot read (1 Davids on New York Law of Wills, § 301).

In the first case involves a contested probate proceeding, the Court determines that the propounded instrument was not executed as required by Decedent Estate Law, § 21. This statute requires by subdivision 2 thereof, that decedent’s subscription of the instrument shall be made in the presence of each of the attesting witnesses or shall be acknowledged by him to have been so made to each of such witnesses. By subdivision 3 thereof, the statute requires the decedent to declare that the instrument subscribed by him was his last will and testament. Compliance with only one of these requirements may not be urged to constitute compliance with the other. Since decedent did not subscribe her name in the presence of the witness, Glackman, it was necessary that she acknowledge such signature to this witness. This she did not do. The fact that decedent may have declared the instrument to be her will, as required by subdivision 3, does not serve as a compliance with subdivision 2. In re Banta’s Will, 204 Misc. 985, 128 N.Y.S.2d 334. This is especially so where, as here, the appended signature is in a foreign language which the witness cannot read (1 Davids on New York Law of Wills, § 301).

The Court finds that decedent did not subscribe the instrument in the presence of the two attesting witnesses and did not acknowledge such subscription to be her signature to said witnesses as required by the statute.

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