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.
In New York, when a loved one dies as a result of the negligence of another person, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate has the right to initiate a wrongful death lawsuit to seek recovery for all damages that are legally compensable as the result of the negligent actions. The personal representative would seek damages on behalf of the decedent’s heirs. If damages are awarded, the personal representative would disburse the damages to the rightful heirs of the decedent’s estate. Typically, damages in a wrongful death claim would include loss of inheritance, pain and suffering experienced by the deceased, medical expenses related to the injury that caused the decedent’s death, and funeral and burial costs.
Applying the law to Passalacqua v. State, the father, as the administrator and claimant, filed the wrongful death claim. If he prevailed, the damages would go to the decedent’s estate. As administrator, the father would distribute the damages to himself as the sole heir. It did not quite work out that way.
The father filed a petition with the Surrogate’s Court for letters of limited administration for purposes of filing the wrongful death claim. Despite the fact that the father was convicted of a violent felony and was still on parole, the Surrogate’s Court issued the father letters. However, the same judge revoked the letters 4 days later on the grounds that it had determined that the father was a felon and was ineligible to receive letters. In response to the claim, the defendant argued that the father did not have standing to file the claim since he was not eligible to serve as the administrator of his daughter’s estate and had never been eligible. This means that the Limited Letters of Administration issued by the Surrogate’s Court were void ab initio—they were never valid.
The father argued in the alternative that the court should suspend the claim and allow another relative to petition for letters of limited administration. The court refused to do so. First, at this point the 2-year statute of limitations for filing wrongful death claims had expired. Second, based on precedent, the court would only be inclined to suspend the claim and make an exception if there were other distributees whose rights would be negatively impacted by the dismissal of the claim. That is not the case here. The decedent’s mother was also killed in the same attack that killed the decedent. The decedent was survived by a brother. However, under the rules of intestate succession, the father would be the only heir. Thus, the court dismissed the wrongful death claim.
In addition to felons, the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act provides that the following are also ineligible: minors; those who have been adjudicated incapable of caring for their own affairs; non-domiciliary aliens; those with problems with substance abuse; those who have a track record of being dishonest; and those who are not able to read or write English.