Articles Posted in Probate & Estate Litigation

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In the case of In re Estate of Greiff, the court was asked to determine if a prenuptial agreement that limited what a surviving spouse inherited was fair.  The decision turned on who had the burden of proof of showing unfairness.

Background

Helen Greiff (plaintiff) and Herman Greiff married when Helen was 65 and Herman was 77. The Greiffs signed reciprocal prenuptial agreements that waived their respective surviving spousal rights in the event of the death of the other. Herman’s will left his entire estate to his children from a prior marriage (the children) (defendants). After Herman died, Helen filed a petition seeking a spousal share of Herman’s estate. The children objected based on the prenuptial agreements.

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Whenever someone brings initiates a lawsuit, they must have standing to sue. Those with standing generally must have a financial interest in the matter.  In Smithers v. St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, the Appellate Division had to determine if the administrator of an estate had standing to sue a donee to enforce the terms of a gift. 

Background

In a June 16, 1971 letter to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center (Hospital) (defendant), R. Brinkley Smithers announced his intention to make a $10 million gift to the Hospital over time to establish an alcoholism treatment center. In the letter, he retained a veto power for himself over the center’s project plans and staff appointments. As it was Smithers’ intention that the treatment center be established in a separate facility, the Hospital purchased a building and opened the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training Center (Center) in 1973.

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Not all property owned by decedent is probate property that is subject to the decedent’s will or intestate distribution.  Property that is jointly owned by the decedent with another person withs survivorship rights typically becomes the property of the surviving account owner upon the death of the other account holder. This is a rebuttable presumption.

In the case of In re Estate of Butta, the Surrogate’s Court, Bronx County was asked to determine whether a bank account was held jointly out of convenience of if it was the intention of the depositor for the other account holder to gift the account to them.

Background

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Ademption occurs when property bequeathed under a will is no longer in the testator’s estate at the time of the testator’s death. In the case of In re Fitzsimmons, the court had to considered whether property that was wrongfully transferred from an estate prior to a testator’s death, but subsequently recovered after the death of the testator should be considered to have adeemed.

Background

In 1979, Lillian Hill, the decedent, and her husband William purchased the real estate that is the subject of this proceeding as tenants by the entirety. On February 3, 2003, after William’s death, the decedent executed a last will and testament. In it, she left the real property to her two daughters, Brenda and Marcia, in equal shares subject to a life estate given to Brenda. The residuary clause of the will provided that Brenda and Marcia each would share 50% of the net estate.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court was asked to determine the proper valuation of an asset that was part of a decedent’s estate for purposes of determining the amount tax owed to New York State. The executor of the estate, Sylvester Cleary, paid the amount that the Department of Taxation said that was owed. However, Cleary now seeks a refund of the payment.

Background

The decedent died on June 11, 2009 and letters testamentary were issued to the petitioner, Sylvester Cleary on August 31, 2009. The total value of the probate estate was $1,328,044.20. Included in the estate is a condominium, located in Westhampton Beach, New York, with a listed value of $600,000 and shares in a Forest Hills, New York cooperative apartment with a listed value of $350,000. According to the inventory submitted by Cleary, both of the properties were subject to life estates which, at the time the inventory was submitted, had not been valued. The owner of the life estates was a friend of the decedent, Ann Elizabeth DePuy. An agreement was executed between the decedent and DePuy granting her a life estate. The properties remained deeded to the decedent at the time of this death.

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If a testator left a will, generally they would have indicated in the will who they want to serve as the executor of the estate. The executor, also referred to as the personal representative, serves a fiduciary and is charged with the job of settling the affairs of the decedent’s estate.

While other interested parties can petition the court to be named the fiduciary, courts give great deference to the person named by the testator in the will as that is the person the testator wanted for the job.  However, for a variety of reasons, the nominated person may not be chose to or be able to serve in the role or other persons may feel they are a better fit for the role. If that happens, the court appoints another person and issues them letters of administration c.t.a. C.T.A means “Cum Testamento Annexo”- with the will annexed” or something added to the will.

In the case of In re the Estate of Greenspon, the Surrogate’s Court considered the issue of  whether the court must give deference to the fiduciary selected by the agent of the testator rather than the testator himself.

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Typically, the court will honor a testator’s choice of executor unless that person is determined to be ineligible. In the case of In re Lublin, the Surrogate’s Court was asked to consider another reason to circumvent the wish of a testator as memorialized in their will.

In the case of In re Lublin, the court considered an issue that was of first impression in New York. The issue was whether the testator’s choice of a preliminary executor must be honored where his actions make clear that he does not support the admission of the will to probate.

Background

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In In re the Estate of Cridland, the administratrix of the estate, the decedent’s sister, sought to remove the restrictions from her limited letters of administration so that she could collect settlement proceeds from an action related to the death of the decedent, allocate the entire recovery to the personal injury causes of action, and judicially account for the proceeds.

In New York, before an individual or entity has the legal authority as the personal representative (personal representative, executor, administrator) to act on behalf of the estate of a decedent, they must petition the Surrogate’s Court and the court must issue them a court order called “letters.”  There are several types of letters. Letters testamentary are issued if the petitioner was named in the decedent’s will to serve as executor.  Letters of administration are issued if the decedent did not have a will. When letters testamentary or letters of administration, the personal representative typically has general authority to take actions necessary to settle the decedent’s estate.

Limited Letters of Administration are a type of letters issued by the court that allow the person to  perform very limited and specific functions that are the best interests of the estate, such as commencing a lawsuit.  Pursuant to SCPA 702, limited letters make be issued under the following circumstances:

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The purpose of a last will and testament is to allow the testator to leave instructions as to what is to happened to their property once the pass away. It’s important for a will to be will-written as clear.  Since when it is time to follow the instructions in the will the testator would have passed the way, they will not be available to clarify their intent. It is important that a will speak for itself.

However, if the language of the will is not clear, the court may have to step in and figure out the intent of the testator. For example if the language is not clear enough to determine beneficiaries or if the text of the will was not logical, the court would have to clarity. In Geng, the language in the will regarding a specific beneficiary was not clear. As a result, the executor asked the court of guidance through a will construction action.

Background

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A will, when properly executed, is a legally enforceable document in which the testator gives instructions as to what is to happen to their property after their death. In this will contest case the Surrogate’s Court has was asked to determine whether a document signed by the decedent was in fact a last will and testament that should be probated.

Under New York law, as in all jurisdictions, there are very specific requirements for a will to be valid.  It must be signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses or a the direction of the testator in their presence. NY EPTL § 3-2.21. With some notable exceptions, the will must also be writing. Further, at the time that they executed the will, the testator must have had the mental capacity to sign the will.

If, as in this case, a will was executed in another jurisdiction, must have been executed in a manner consistent with that jurisdiction. In this case, one of the documents submitted was executed in Pennsylvania.

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