Articles Posted in Probate & Estate Litigation

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If a New York will contains language that is vague or subject to multiple interpretations, interested parties can initiate probate litigation to request that the Surrogate’s Court  determine how the ambiguous language in the will should be construed. This type of litigation is called a “construction action.” The purpose of will construction is to determine the intent of the testator determined from a sympathetic reading of the will as a whole. The court will avoid looking to extrinsic evident to determine the testator’s intent, but will consider extrinsic evidence submitted by the litigants if necessary.

Background

The decedent owned property at 815 Placek Drive, Johnson City, New York. In her will, she left that property to Michael Steflik. The will also stipulated that if the property at 815 Placek Drive was no longer a part of the estate because she sold it, then she bequeathed 30% of her estate to Michael Steflik.  The also left percentages of her estate to several other different people. Augustine Steflik 15% Theresa Steflik 20% Richard, John, Joseph, Debra Steflik and Mary Louise Furlong 7% each.

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In this case, the Surrogate’s Court was asked to determine the applicability of the Loft Law in a case where a landlord sought to recover back rent and where the decedent’s estate sought to recover the value of fixtures added to the premises by the decedent.

Under New York law,  a loft is a raw, open space that was originally commercial space and not suitable for purposes. However, it became common for owners to rent the space for residential use.  The Loft Law was enacted in the 1980s to encourage landlords to legalize the illegal residential units and bring them within the regulatory system that governs residential rentals. One part of the Loft Law applied to fixtures that residents added to their units in order to make the unit habitable and compliant with the residential unit regulatory system.

Background

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Under New York law, there are multiple ways to revoke a will. The testator can execute a document clearly indicating an intention to revoke the will.  The testator can intentionally destroy the will by ripping it up, burning it, or another action of destruction. Or, the testator can execute a new will. In the case of In re the Estate of Wimpfheimer, there was an objection to probating a 1992 for a number of reasons, including that the testator executed a new will in 2003.

Background

The decedent, Ruth Wimpfheimer, died on February 12, 2003 leaving a probate estate valued at $6,000,000. The only distributees were her daughter and the objectant. The will also establishes a trust that benefits the proponent as well as the decedent’s seven grandchildren. The residuary estate goes to the proponent. The will explicitly limits the amount that the objectant was entitled to the decedent has provided for the objectant’s children during her lifetime and because the objectant would receive future benefits from practicing law in the firm  that the decedent’s husband founded.

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During estate administration, a major responsibility of a personal representative is to identify, secure, and inventory estate assets. In some instances, a turnover proceeding is required to ensure that all assets that are part of the estate are accounted for. A turnover proceeding is a legal proceeding that occurs during which the representative of an estate requests that property of the estate in the possession of third parties is returned to the estate. SCPA  § 2103.

In Kelligrew, the court considered whether nearly $200,000 in funds transferred to via check drawn on the decedent’s account were assets of the decedent’s estate or a gift.

Background

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In the process of estate administration, when there is a disagreement about who has title to property or there has been a theft of assets, the executor of an estate can initiate a turnover proceeding to get more information and to recover property that belongs to the estate. SCPA  § 2103

Background

Decedent died on July 13, 2017. She left a will and was survived by six adult children as well as her long-time companion, the petitioner William Koughn. The decedent and Koughn split their time between homes in Florida and in New York.  However, in February 2017, the decedent’s children forced her to move from Florida to New York and initiated a guardianship proceeding.  Shortly before her death, one of the decedent’s sons, George Mahoney, was appointed as her guardian.

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Under New York law, when a child dies, typically their parents are their next of kin and are entitled to share in their intestate estate.  However, a parent can be disqualified from inheriting from the child’s estate under two conditions: if the parent abandoned the child before their 21st birthday or if the parent failed to provide financially for the child before their 21st birthday. EPTL § 4-1.4. In addition, there is a long-standing rule in New York that a person is not permitted to profit by their own wrongdoing.

Because children generally do not have significant estates. However, if the child’s death is due to an accident, they child may have been awarded a significant settlement from a personal injury claim for their conscious pain and suffering. In addition, the child’s next of kin may be entitled to share in a settlement for wrongful death.

Background

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Once an administrator has been appointed, SCPA § 711 provides that they can be removed or suspend under specific circumstances.  In In re Matter of Estate of Corey, the  Surrogate’s Court was to remove an administrator because he allegedly exceeded the scope of his fiduciary duties and responsibilities.

Background

The decedent died on July 8, 2018 at the age of 92. She was survived by three children and two grandchildren. She was intestate and left an estate valued at about $30,000,000.  All of the beneficiaries were eligible to serve as administrator.  However, they all agreed that attorney Markello should be appointed administrator.  Because Markello was not a beneficiary of the decedent’s estate, all of the beneficiaries had to approve his appointment.  Letters of administration were issued to Markello on August 8, 2018.

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In this case, the Appellate Division, Second Department, considered whether the Surrogate’s Court of Kings County erred in dismissing the objectant’s objections and admitting the decedent’s will to probate.

Background

The decedent died on May 20, 2014 leaving a will dated March 28, 22014. The petitioner filed a petition for probate on July 22, 2014. Several people filed objectants claiming lack of due execution, lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, and fraud. The Surrogate’s Court dismissed the objections and admitted the will to probate.  An objectant appealed.

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In a contested probate case, the court considered whether there was an triable issue of fact with respect to whether the decedent had been subjected to undue influence at the time that he executed his will.

Background

On December 22, 2016, the decedent died after a terminal illness. He left a will dated December16, 20216. He was survived by three children. One of his children is the objectant. The petitioner submitted the for probate and the objectant filed objections.  The grounds for the will contest  include lack of  testamentary capacity and undue influence. The petitioner moved for summary judgment dismissing the objections.  The Surrogate’s Court granted the petitioner’s motion dismissing the objections and admitting the will to probate. The objectant appealed.

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In In re Kaufman, the Appellate Division was asked to determine whether the Surrogate’s Court erred in suspending the letters of co-executors without an evidentiary hearing.

When a testator makes a will, it is their last opportunity to let the world know what they want to happen to their property once they pass away.  Testators can also choose to nominate an executor who would be responsible for managing their estate.

Wills are legally enforceable documents, and courts have a duty to uphold their terms.  Thus, whenever the court is asked to make a ruling that would circumvent the wishes of a testator, they make sure that there is a very good reason to do so supported by clear evidence.

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