Articles Posted in Probate & Estate Litigation

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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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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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New York has strict rules about how a will must be drafted and executed in order for it to be valid.  There are also rules related to when a New York Surrogate’s Court will admit a foreign will to probate.  The purpose of these technical rules is to ensure that a will is authentic and that it truly represents the last wishes of the testator.  In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to consider whether a will that was written in Italian, executed in Italy, and hand-scribed by a notary should be admitted to probate.

Foreign wills, whether executed in another country or another state, will be admitted to probate in New York as long as it meets New York’s requirements.  For a will to be valid in New York, it must be writing, signed at the end by the testator, and witnessed and signed by two people.

In this case the will was written by a notary at the request of the testator.  The preamble to the will written by the notary states that the testator declared that the document was written by the notary to be the testator’s last will and testament and that there were witnesses present.  The document was signed at the end by the testator, two witnesses, and the notary.  The notary also stamped the document next to his signature.  However, the will did not have an attestation clause. An attestation clause is a statement at the end of the will where the witnesses certify that they saw the testator sign the will and declare that it is his or her last will and testament. Failure to include an attestation clause make a will contest more likely.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court considered whether the petitioners presented sufficient evidence of undue influence for the court to declare a will invalid.  When J. Malone passed away, a petition to probate her will was filed.  Several relatives, collectively the objectants, filed objections contesting the validity of the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity, lack of due execution, and undue influence.

Under New York law, once a petition for probate is filed with the Surrogate’s Court, any interested party has the right to file an objection to probate.  However, the objecting party must state the basis for his (or her) objection.  Common grounds include lack of testamentary capacity, lack of due execution, undue influence, duress, and fraud.  Merely stating the basis for the objection is not enough.  The objectant must also provide evidence, either direct or inferential, of the existence of the basis for the objection.

In Malone, the petitioners moved for summary judgment dismissing all objections.  The objectants only opposed summary dismissal to the objection related to undue influence.  Thus, the Surrogate’s Court examined whether there was any evidence, direct or circumstantial, to support the objectants’ claim that J. Malone had been subjected to undue influence when she made her will.

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In this case the Kings County Surrogate’s Court considered a petition filed by a beneficiary to revoke the letters testamentary of the executor.

Under New York law, under SCPA § 711, an interested party such as a beneficiary can petition the court to revoke the authority of the executor. However, the court is loathe to disturb the testator’s choice without a very good reason.  There are several “very good” reasons for revocation including:

  • The executor was never qualified or is no longer qualified (e.g. the executor was convicted of a felony)
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A will contest is an action brought in the Surrogate’s Court to challenge the validity of a will. In order to contest a will, the objectant must have valid grounds such as improper execution, undue influence, fraud, or duress.  In the matter of In re Martinico, the objectants petitioned the Surrogate’s Court of Kings County, objecting to the will being probated for multiple reasons, including improper execution.

Under New York estate law, in order for a will to survive a will contest based on improper execution, the will must be executed in a manner that follows the requirements of New York law.  First, the testator must sign the will at the end.  Because there are instances in which a testator are not capable of signing a will himself (or herself), it is acceptable for someone else to sign the will as long as the testator directs the other person to sign for him (or her).  In addition, the person signing for the testator must sign the will in the presence of the testator and must also sign his own name.

Second, the will must be witnessed by at least two competent individuals who must also sign the will.  The two witnesses must be competent. Ideally, both of the witnesses should be present and observe the testator sign the will.  Otherwise, the testator must acknowledge to the witnesses that he did indeed sign the will.

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An in terrorem clause, also referred to as a “no-contest” is a clause in a will that states that if a beneficiary challenges a provision in the will or the entire will, that beneficiary’s bequest will be void. The purpose of an in terrorem clause is to prevent a will contest.  While will contests are often well founded, they are also often unfounded.  Because they are time-consuming and costly, testators sometimes include in terrorem clauses because they anticipate that a disgruntled beneficiary will contest the will and wants to discourage him or her from doing so.

In Sochurek v. Ammirato, the decedent was survived by his wife and his two daughters from a previous marriage.  He named his wife the executor. The will gave the wife a life interest in a business that he co-owned, and that upon the death of the wife, the daughters would inherit his interest in the business.  The will also gave the wife the authority to run, manage, or sell his interest in the business as she saw fit.

In the process of administering the decedent’s estate, the wife did decide to sell the business for $7.5 million. As remainder beneficiaries of the wife’s life estate, it was necessary for a determination to be made of what the daughters’ interests would be in the liquidated assets of the business.  The wife entered into a standstill agreement with the daughters to hold the proceeds from the sales in a segregated bank account until a determination was made.

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Two reasons for contesting a will are undue influence and fraud. Undue influence occurs when someone intentionally and illegally exerts influence over a testator such that the testator’s will reflects the intent of the influencer and not the testator. Typically, the influencer has a position of power over the testator who is vulnerable.  For example, a caregiver providing meals and personal care to a physically frail testator would be in a position to exert undue influence over the testator.

For a will to have been made based on fraud, someone must have knowingly made a false statement that caused the testator to execute a will that he or she would not have made but for the false statement.

In the Matter of Clapper, the decedent had two children:  a son and a daughter.  He named his daughter the executor of his estate and left her the bulk of his estate.  He left his son 1,000 loose pennies ($10.00).  Not surprisingly, the son was not pleased with his testamentary gift.  Convinced that his sister, the decedent’s daughter, must have somehow manipulated their father into essentially cutting him out of the will, the son initiated a will contest.  The son based his objections to the will on undue influence and fraud.  However, the Surrogate’s Court was not convinced by the son’s arguments and admitted the will to probate.  The son appealed.

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In this case the Appellate Division had to consider whether the spouse of a decedent was entitled to certain assets in his estate in light of the provisions of the couple’s prenuptial agreement.  Upon the death of the husband, a dispute developed between the executor of the decedent’s estate and the decedent’s surviving spouse.  The question was based on the terms of the couple’s prenuptial agreement.

The language of the prenuptial agreement was that the wife was entitled to liquid assets in the amount of $3,500,000, “reduced by the amounts of four (4) mortgages … and any accounts that pass to [the wife] by operation of law.”  The executor’s position was that the $3,500,000 payment to the wife was to be reduced by the mortgages as well as by entire value of the money in the joint accounts to which she would be entitled.  As a result, the wife should not receive any assets from the joint accounts.  On the other hand, the wife’s interpretation of the agreement was that since under the law she would be entitled to 50% of the joint accounts, that the $3,500,000 payment should be reduced by the amount of the 4 mortgages and only 50% of the value of the joint accounts.  Under the wife’s interpretation, she would receive more, as the base amount of $3,500,000 would be reduced by the mortgages and reduced by only half of the value of the joint accounts.

The differing interpretations of the terms of the prenuptial agreement formed the basis for estate litigation before the Surrogate’s Court.  The Surrogate’s Court sided with the wife, granting her motion for summary judgement.  The executor appealed.

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The issue before the Surrogate’s Court is whether the petitioner made enough of an effort to locate a lost will before petitioning the court to proceed with an intestate administration.

In the case of In re Estate of Karp, after the death of R. Karp, a “paper writing” of Karp’s 1995 will was found, but the original was not found.  It appears as if the will that was found was either a copy of the original or a draft of the will that was eventually executed. Regardless, the document found was not the duly executed last will and testament of R. Karp.  The petitioner, who was also one of the decedent’s distributees, asked that the court not admit that will to probate. Instead, the petitioner asked that the court appoint her as the administrator. In doing so, the court would have to find that R. Karp died intestate. Because she has an interest in the decedent’s intestate estate, under SCPA § 1002 the petitioner would be entitled to be appointed administrator.

Under the 1995 will, there were 21 beneficiaries.  However, not all of the 21 beneficiaries were also distributees.  There were only 5 distributees, included the petitioner.  If the will is not probated then most of the beneficiaries, including the objectants, would not be entitled to any part of the estate.

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