In In re Steward the court considered whether the Surrogate’s Court erred in denying a motion to suspend co-administrators where the co-administrators were unable to get along.
SCPA § 711 describes the circumstances under which a court can revoke letters of administration:
- Wasted assets. The court has the authority to suspend an administrator if the administrator has wasted estate assets by mismanaging estate property, making illegal investments, by misapplying estate assets, or by otherwise injuring estate property.
- Ignored court orders. An administrator can be removed if they refuse to follow an order of the court. Failed to follow a lawful order of the court.
- Fraudulently obtained letters. If it is determined that the administrator received their letters after submitting false information, the court can revoke the letters.
- Failed to notify court of change of address. An administrator must immediately inform the court of a change of address. If they fail to do so within 30 days over moving, the court can revoke their letters.
- Removed estate assets from the estate. The administrator is not allowed to remove estate property without prior permission from the court. If they do, they can be removed.
- Not qualified. An administrator must be fit to serve in the role. If an administrator has a problem with substance abuse, is dishonest, is irresponsible, has a want of understanding, or is otherwise unfit for role, they can be removed.
- Failure to account. An administrator must submit an accounting to the court whenever the court requests one. Failure to do so is grounds for removal.
Even though the law expressly provides that reasons that a court can suspend an administrator, courts are still very hesitant to do so, particularly in instances where the administrator was nominated in their will to serve as executor. The courts want to honor the wishes of the testator as expressed in their will. However, if there is clear evidence that an administrator is unfit and that their actions have damaged the estate, a court will remove an administrator, regardless o whether the testator nominated them in their will.
The decedent passed away on July 15, 1999. On April 2, 2001, the will was admitted to probate before the Kings County Surrogate’s Court, which issued letters of administration to Menfus Housworth and Calvin Hill. Note that the testator did not nominate Housworth and Hill in their will to serve as executors.
In September 2018, RMX, a company with an interest in the estate, filed a petition, seeking to revoke the letters of administration issued to Housworth and Hill. The petition alleged that the administrators had allowed the estate to languish for nearly two decades, and that Housworth was acting against the interests of the estate. The Surrogate’s Court denied the petition and refused to remove the administrators. The petitioner appealed.
The Appellate Court reversed. It found that the record showed that there was evidence of conflict between the two administrators. There was also evidence that as a result of the conflict the administrators were not able to effectively perform their duties. As the result the estate languished for nearly two decades. In addition, Housworth, one of administrators, admitted that he permitted his father to live in the other property rent free.
The court noted that because the administrators were not named as executors in the decedent’s will, there was not a concern that suspending them would violate the express wishes of the testator.