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Court refused to overturn default judgment in an estate administrator appointment case.  Buie v. Buie, 186 A.D.3d 1516 (N.Y. App. Div. 2020)


Generally, when someone passes away, their estate must go through an administration process that starts with submitting the decedent’s will, if any, to the Surrogate’s Court, along what a petition for appointment of the administrator or executor. The law requires that interested parties must be notified that the estate is in the process of being opened, that a will has been filed, that someone is seeking to be appointed administrator of the estate.  Interested parties must be notified so that they can be heard on matters related to the process, including the appointment of the administrator.

In Buie, the decedent died intestate in 2004.  This means that she did not leave a will nominating someone to serve as the executor of her estate.  As a result, based on a statutory order of priority, any interested party has the right to file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court to receive letters of administrator and move forward with the tasks required to settle the decedent’s estate.

The decedent was survived by 5 children.  Twelve years later, in 2016, one of the decedent’s children, Deborah, filed a petition with the court for letters of administration for the decedent’s estate, which included a single-family house in Brooklyn and an adjacent vacant lot.

The petition was served on interested parties, including Linda Buie and Teresa Buie—two of the decedent’s other children. However, neither of them responded or appeared in court on the return date as indicated in the paperwork.  As a result, they were in default and lost their right to respond to the petition to appoint Deborah as administrator of the decedent’s estate.

Now, Linda and Teresa appeal the default judgement, requesting that the court vacate their default in appearing and to extend their time to file a response to Deborah’s petition. The Surrogate’s Court denied their motion.  Instead, it issued Deborah limited letters of administration of the decedent’s estate.  Linda and Teresa appealed.

The Appellant Division found in favor of Deborah and declined to extend the time for Linda and Teresa to extend their time to respond to the petition. The court explained that the time to respond to a petition will be extended or a default judgement a will be avoided under only very limited circumstances.  It must be shown that there was a reasonable excuse for failing to meet the deadline.  In addition, the person who missed the deadline must show that they have a potentially meritorious objection to the petition.

Whether the reason for missing a deadline was reasonable is a determination made by the court and at its discretion. The court will consider factors such as the extent of the delay, whether the failure to meet the deadline was willful, whether the opposing party has been prejudiced, and whether public policy favored resolving the case on its merits.

In Buie, the Linda and Teresa, the appellants, did not provide a reasonable excuse for their default.  Furthermore, they did not provide a potentially meritorious objection to Deborah’s petition.

As in any litigation, it is critical to respond timely respond to filings related to a probate proceeding in order to preserve your rights. The administrator’s or executor’s position with respect to an estate is significant.  While their actions are subject to review of the court and they must get court approval to perform certain actions, they do have a great deal of control over estate assets and the process of administration.  Furthermore, the are entitled to compensation for their work.  Failure to respond to a petition to be appointed as administrator may result in the court never hearing legitimate concerns about the appointment.

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