Articles Posted in Probate & Estate Litigation

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A last will and testament allows a testator to specific who will receive their property upon death.  It is an effective way to ensure you’re your property goes to who you want to receive it. However, many people do not leave wills, dying intestate.  As result, New York’s law of intestate succession applies and dictates who gets the property in the decedent’s estate.  The surviving spouse and children, if any, would be entitled to inherit.  In the absence of either, the decedent’s parents would be next in line to inherit, followed by siblings.

In Gonzalez, the 27-year-old decedent died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She was survived by her father, sister, and brother.  The brother and sister applied for letters of administration.  Separately, the father did as well. The brother and sister petitioned the court for summary judgment granting their petition for the issuance of letters of administration. Their request for summary judgment also requested that the court dismissed the decedent’s father’s petition despite the fact that the father was the decedent’s presumptive distributee.

The petitioners argued that the father is disqualified from inheriting because he failed to or refused to provide for her or that he abandoned her.  As a result, under EPTL 4-1.1 her estate should be distributed as if the father had predeceased the decedent.  That would mean that the petitioners would be her distributees.

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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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The proponents of the will are children of the decedent.  When they sought to have the decedent’s will admitted to probate, an objection was filed on the grounds that the will had been procured by the proponent’s exerting undue influence over the decedent.

Undue influence exists when someone uses their position of trust with respect to a testator to illegally influence the testator to create a will they would not have otherwise made.  Oftentimes undue influence occurs when the testator is vulnerable due to failing physical health or mental decline.  In almost every case, the person who exerts the undue influence is a position of trust with respect to the testator such as being their caregiver or financial advisor.  In fact, in Kotsones, the court cites Blase v. Blase, 148 A.D.3d 1777 (2017) by noting that it has been established that “where there was a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the beneficiary and the decedent, [a]n inference of undue influence arises which requires the beneficiary to come forward with an explanation of the circumstances of the transaction.”

The court noted that for a relationship to be  confidential, there must be inequality in the relationship as well as a controlling influence.  In other words, for there to be a confidential relationship that would allow for inference of undue influence, the circumstances must be such that the parties are not able to deal on terms of equality.

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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 a contested probate case, the court considered whether an objectant had standing to participate in the probate proceeding based on a claim of being the child of the decedent.

Th decedent died in February of 2018, leaving a substantial estate.  A petition to probate a purported will of decedent dated January 11, 2017 was filed by the decedent’s attorney and the drafter of the will. The will named him as the executor. The petitioner, A. Mengoni, among others, was named as an interested party as she was identified as an alleged daughter of decedent. The instant litigation was commenced when A. Mengoni filed objections to the will. The proponent of the will, decedent’s attorney and nominated executor, filed a motion to strike A. Mengoni ‘s appearance and dismiss her objections.

New York law requires that in order to participate in a probate proceeding, you must have standing to do so. Generally, only those who are named in a will as beneficiaries and the intestate heirs of a decedent have standing. Also, anyone who was a beneficiary of a prior will and would be adversely affected if the propounded will is probated would also have standing according to Surr. Ct. Proc. Act. Section 1410.  In this case, A. Mengoni is basing her standing on being the child of the decedent, making her an intestate heir.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court, Albany County, considered whether an individual had standing to object to probating a will based on having been named as a beneficiary in a prior will pursuant to pursuant to Surr. Ct. Proc. Act § 1410.

Before a person can become a party to a proceeding to probate a will the person must have legal standing. “Standing” means that the person has an interest in the outcome of the probate proceeding. Typically, those who have standing are limited to anyone who is mentioned in the will as a beneficiary or those who are intestate heirs of the decedent.

In this case the petitioner, R. Smith, who is not a beneficiary of the will submitted for probate and who is not an intestate heir of the decedent, is a beneficiary of a prior will.  Smith intends to the object to the probate of the will already submitted, but first the Surrogate’s Court must consider Smith’s motion for standing as a person adversely affected by the admission into probate of the will.

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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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Will contests are by nature acrimonious.  While some are based on legitimate concerns supported by actual or circumstantial evidence, others are based on long-standing family disputes.  However, just because there is family discord does not mean that the objections to a will are not valid.  Regardless of the impetus for filing a will contest, the Surrogate’s Court will not allow a full hearing on objections to a will unless there is a legitimate basis as well as evidence. The grounds for a will contest include improper execution, mental incapacity, undue influence, duress, and fraud.

In the Will of Djavaheri-Saatchi, while the objectant provides 5 legal grounds for challenging the will, another reason for the will contest may lie in family history.  The proponent of the will, the  daughter of the decedent, provided evidence that the decedent had decided to disinherit the objectant several years prior to the execution of the will at issue.  Apparently, the reason was due to the actions by the objectant’s mother.  The decedent was upset with the objectant’s mother because he believed that she stole property from him.  Also, the decedent disinherited the objectant because she would be entitled to property in Iran.  Instead, he decided to leave his entire estate to the proponent of the will.

Of course, being disinherited is not a legal ground for a will contest.  The objectant made specific allegations of actions that point to the will not being a true representation of the decedent’s wishes.  The objectant argued that the will was not properly executed, that the decedent lacked the mental capacity required to execute a will, that there was undue influence, that the decedent was under duress, and that fraud was involved.  Underlying all of her arguments is an allegation that the proponent manipulated the decedent into disinheriting the objectant and leaving his estate to herself.  The proponent responded to the objections by filing a motion for summary judgement, arguing that the objectant failed to raise a triable issue of fact with regard to the execution of the will, the testator’s mental capacity, or the existence of undue influence, duress, or fraud.  Thus, as a matter of law, the proponent should prevail.

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