Articles Posted in Wills

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In this probate case the court considered the question as to whether it has the authority to consider extrinsic evidence in the determining how to interpret ambiguous terms of a last will and testament.

In her last will and testament, decedent Bruce made a provision as to the disposition of her a portion of her estate, the literal meaning of which would make the provision invalid. In her will, the decedent sought to exercise her power of appointment directing the trustees of two separate trusts, to distribute the assets in her residuary estate to the LB Foundation. A person who writes a will or creates a trust can give his or her beneficiaries a power of appointment, which enables the beneficiaries to direct where their share of the estate or trust goes at their death. In this case, a 1969 trust of which the decedent was a beneficiary gave the decedent the power to determine where her share of the trust would go upon her death. However, due to the wording of the language of the decedent’s will, the literal reading of decedent’s request is not valid because it exceeded the powers that were granted to her in the 1969 trust.

Upon considering summary judgment motions from both the petitioner and the respondent, the Surrogate’s Court noted that the testator’s intent is deciphered from a sympathetic reading of her last will and testament. Accordingly, the court must read the distribution plan that appears to be in the will in light of the testator’s intention. It is clear that the decedent’s intention was to provide property to the LB Foundation. It follows that it did not make sense for her to make a disposition of property that she knew would be invalid.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to consider issues related to a contested guardianship under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 and invalidating a property conveyance by the person who is the subject of the guardianship. Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 provides that upon petition, the Surrogate’s Court can appoint a guardian to handle the personal and/or financial affairs of a person who has been found to be incapacitated and would suffer harm in the absence of a guardianship.

Here, it was discovered that R. Nurse transferred 50% ownership in real property to his stepson, Dacres. R. Nurse’s biological children, M. Nurse and H. Nurse, stepped in and petitioned the court to be appointed co-guardians of R. Nurse. They also requested that the court void the transaction that conveyed R. Nurse’s property to Dacres. At the hearing, evidence was produced that confirmed that R. Nurse had dementia. Further, there was clear evidence that R. Nurse was incompetent at the time that he signed the deed and that he was subject to undue influence. Thus, the court voided the deed and granted the petition of M. Nurse and N. Nurse to be appointed co-guardians. Dacres appealed.

In ruling in favor of the petitioners, the court noted that the general rule is that it is assumed that a person is competent. The burden is on the petitioner to prove with clear evidence that the party is not competent. When it comes to voiding a property conveyance, the burden is on the petitioner to show that the party was not competent at the time of the conveyance.

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In this probate proceeding the court had to address an issue related to the construction of terms in the will related to the restriction on the disposition of real estate.

Decedent M. Bonanno died in 2002, leaving a last will and testament dated August 1, 1983. The Surrogate’s Court admitted the will to probate. The will provided that specific real estate that she owned in Queens go to her 4 children, and that it not be sold while her children remained single, and while any of them still lived in the property. It also stated that when the property was sold, the proceeds would be divided equally among her four children. Two of the decedent’s children petitioned the court for a construction of the provisions of the will related to the real property. They sought an order stating that each of 4 sibling owns a ¼ share of the property in fee simple without restriction. After filing the petition, the petitioners also filed a motion of summary judgment on the petition. The Surrogate’s Court denied the motion and the petitioners appealed.

In a summary judgment motion, the moving party has the burden of making a prima facie showing that based on the undisputed material facts, he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the moving party is able to do this, then the burden shifts to the opposing party to rebut the moving party’s motion and show that there are material facts in dispute.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to determine if a will should be invalidated due to improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and undue influence.  On October 19, 2015, the Surrogate’s Court entered the will of decedent L. West into probate. An objectant, P. West,  raised objections to the will, questioning its validity.  The respondent moved for summary judgment that the will was indeed valid. The court granted the respondent’s motion concluding that he had successfully proven that the will was duly executed.

When someone files a motion for summary judgment, he or she is asking the court to decide immediately that the based on the undisputed facts, he or she should win the case without it going to trial.  To prevail, the moving party has the burden of producing evidence that he or she is entitled to summary judgment.  If the moving party is able to do this, then the burden shifts to the non-moving party to rebut the moving party’s prima facie showing.

Here, the proponent of the will moved for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss the objectant’s claim that the will is was not properly executed. In support of his motion, the proponent of the will submitted the will’s attestation clause and the affidavit and testimony of the witnesses. Thus, the proponent proved that the will was duly executed.  The objectant did not successfully raise a triable issue of fact related to the will’s execution.

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The issue before the Surrogate’s Court is whether a will was properly executed.  New York estate law requires that in order for a will to be valid, it must meet certain technical requirements related to execution. That is the requirement now, and it was also the requirement decades ago when the will at issue in this 1954 Surrogate’s Court case was executed.

Decedent Estate Law, § 21 provides that in order for a will to be valid, there are 4 requirements related to execution: 1.  The will must be signed by the testator at the end.  2.  The testator must sign the will in the presence of two attesting witnesses.  Otherwise, the testator must acknowledge to the witnesses that he signed the will.  3.  At the time that he signed the will or acknowledged that he signed the will, the testator must also declare to the witnesses that the document that he signed was indeed his last will and testament.  4.  The two attesting witnesses must also sign the will at the end.

In the case of In re Levine’s Will, the court had to decide if the second requirement was met that the decedent signed her will in the presence of two witnesses, or acknowledged to the witnesses that the signature on the will was indeed hers.  One of the witnesses, Glackman, was not present when the decedent, B. Levine, signed her will.  Therefore, in order for the execution of the will to be compliant with the statute, the decedent must have acknowledged to Glackman that she did actually sign the will.  Levine did not do this.

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In this case, the Surrogate’s Court was asked by two of the decedent’s creditors to revoke the estate administrator’s letters of administration because in petitioning the court for letters of administrator, the petitioner mispresented his status as a distributee of the decedent’s estate.

The decedent, J. Young, was a successful songwriter.  He died in 1939 intestate.  The term “intestate” means that Young died without having executed a valid will.  He was survived by his spouse and his father. Under New York’s intestacy laws, they were his only distributees. In May 1939, Young’s wife was appointed administrator of his estate. She died in November 1973, leaving a properly executed will that named co-executors.

In September 2009, the grandnephew of the decedent, N. Young, petitioned the court for letters of administration de bonis non with respect to the decedent’s estate. Pursuant to  Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act § 1007 , letters of administration de bonis non are letters that allow for the administration of assets that remain in an estate in situations where the  original executor or previous administrator is unable to do so.  The petition filed by the grandnephew, the respondent in this case, was supported by waivers and consents of twenty-one of the distributees identified.  A citation was issued to one alleged distributee who did not appear on the return date. According to his petition, the value of the assets in need of administration was $9,000.00.

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A New York Probate Lawyer said that, before the court is the motion of the nominated successor co-trustee of the trusts created under Paragraphs Second, Third and Sixth of the will of the decedent. Movant seeks summary judgment pursuant to CPLR 3213 granting his petition for appointment as successor co-trustee pursuant to SCPA 1502. In the alternative, movant asks the court to issue an order pursuant to CPLR 3126 striking the objections to his appointment which were filed by a trust beneficiary, for her failure to provide discovery.

The decedent died on February 14, 2008, survived by his wife, hereinafter, “the objectant”, his son, and his daughter. Decedent left a will dated October 27, 2004, as amended by codicil dated October 12, 2006. The will and codicil were admitted to probate by this court on April 4, 2008. In Paragraph Second of the will, decedent established a credit shelter trust for the benefit of the objectant. In Paragraph Third of the will, decedent established a generation-skipping trust for the benefit of the objectant. In Paragraph Sixth of the will, decedent created a residuary trust for the benefit of the objectant. In connection with each of the three trusts, letters of trusteeship were issued by this court on April 4, 2008, to the three nominated trustees and the objectant.

One trustee submitted his written resignation as trustee on February 2, 2010. The nominated successor trustee, executed a renunciation on February 11, 2010. On May 13, 2010, the trustee filed a petition with this court for permission to resign and for the appointment of hereinafter, “movant”, the next successor trustee nominated by the decedent in his will.

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In 1982, the decedent, I. Berk, executed a will naming his sons, J. Berk and H. Berk, as the co-executors of his estate. The will also left his entire estate to his sons and his grandchildren. I. Berk was a successful businessman with substantial assets. Over time I. Berk’s physical and mental health began to deteriorate. Eventually he had to use a wheelchair to get around, suffered memory loss, and was often confused.

In 1997 the petitioner, H. Wang, who was a 40-year-old recent immigrant from China, began to work as the decedent’s live-in caretaker. Eventually, the decedent, became totally dependent on the petitioner, who was constantly with him. Friends of the decedent reported that the petitioner treated the decedent poorly, frequently screaming and shoving him, causing him to become tearful. A friend of the decedent alleged that the decedent told him that he was afraid of the petitioner.

In April 2005 the decedent was diagnosed with dementia by a physician who examined him in connection with a contemplated guardianship proceeding. That physician stated that the decedent was no longer capable of caring for himself or managing his own affairs. Despite this, on June 17, 2005, the petitioner and the decedent got married in the New York City Clerk’s Office. At the time the petitioner was 47 years old and the decedent was 99 years. Neither the petitioner nor the decedent ever told the decedent’s friends, family members, or associates about the wedding. In addition, according to a friend who saw the decedent every day, the decedent and the petitioner never showed affection towards each other and the decedent never wore a wedding band. The decedent’s sons learned of the wedding after the decedent died in 2006, as they were riding in a car to the funeral home with the petitioner. At that time the petitioner told them that she had married the decedent.

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In this case the Surrogate’s Court had to determine whether to probate a carbon copy of a will where the original was purported inadvertently lost or destroyed.

According to the two witnesses, the decedent, L. Levinsohn, executed a will on or about February 27, 1948. They testified that all legal requirements were met. In addition, they testified that at the time Levinsohn executed the will, the decedent was of sound mind and memory and that he was not under duress.

One of the two witnesses was an attorney and was also the person who drafted the will. He testified that immediately after the will was executed, he gave it to the decedent’s son for safekeeping. This witness also testified that he made a carbon copy of the original will which he conformed and kept in his files. The witness submitted the carbon copy for probate.

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