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Guardian Charged with Gross Negligence


A guardian for an old man is accused of gross negligence, malpractice, inaction, unlawful and breach of authority relationship regarding his conduct and/or lack thereof in exercising a certain right of election on the old man’s behalf against the last will and testament of his deceased son.
The claim for compensatory and disciplinary damages results, allegedly, from the defendant’s failure as guardian of the father to have taken steps necessary to have enabled his ward to exercise his personal right of election against an excessive testamentary gift for educational purposes. While this probate proceeding concerned the will of the son who died, the facts herein involved concern the estates of three deceased because, as will appear more fully below, soon after the son died, the mother died and shortly thereafter, the father died.

Under the son’s will, the father, at the time of the son’s death, then over 90 years of age, was one of the son’s two beneficiaries, the other being the mother. The petition for validation of the son’s will was later amended to describe the father as being then a person under disability because he was incapable of managing his own affairs and a request made, in view thereof, for the appointment of a guardian to protect the father’s interests in his son’s estate. By order the then Surrogate appointed the defendant as guardian for the father in the validation proceeding of the son’s will. Parenthetically, the defendant was a long-time friend of the family. In the proceeding, the mother was separately represented by independent counsel.

Under the terms of the son’s will dated and witnessed March 20, 1971, eleven days prior to his death, after disposing of certain personality to his mother, the son left his entire estate, both real and personal to the University of Detroit for educational purposes. A New York Probate Lawyer said the father, through his guardian and the mother, through her counsel filed objections to the validation of the son’s will. Additionally, the mother served a written notice of election against the excessive gift for educational purposes dated and verified upon the preliminary executor appointed in the son’s validation proceeding and filed the original thereof in the Surrogate’s Court.

While the son’s proceeding was pending, the mother died. Under the terms of the mother’s will, three days before her death, a trust was created for the father for his life with the remainder payable to the defendant, her lawyer-friend who was then acting as guardian for the father in the son’s validation proceeding. The Defendant was also the named executor of the mother’s will and, thereafter, received preliminary letters testamentary by order of the Surrogate’s Court. Parenthetically, it should be noted that defendant was not the draftsman of the mother’s will.
While the validation proceedings of both the son and the mother were pending the father died intestate and the plaintiff herein was appointed administrator of the father’s estate by order of the Surrogate’s Court. By instrument verified and filed in the Surrogate’s Court, the plaintiff, as administrator of the father’s estate, filed objections to the validation of the mother’s will.

The validation proceedings of the son’s and mother’s wills were adjourned from time to time in the Surrogate’s Court pending settlement discussions relative to the objections filed and then a written agreement of settlement was entered into among the preliminary executor of the son’s estate, the preliminary executor of the mother’s estate (who was the father’s former guardian) and the plaintiff-administrator of the father’s estate. Bronx Probate Lawyers said several individual beneficiaries of these properties also joined in the settlement agreement. This agreement settled the objections to validation filed against the son’s will and the mother’s will. As part of the consideration for this settlement agreement, the estate of the mother assigned to the estate of the father the elective share which the mother had sought to enforce with respect to the excessive educational gift made in the son’s will to the University of Detroit and further agreed to pay to the father’s estate.

The complaint now made by the plaintiff, the administrator of the father’s estate, essentially charges the defendant, the lawyer who served as the father’s guardian in the validation proceeding relating to the son’s will, with having intended to deprive his ward, the father, of the father’s right to inherit from the mother’s estate and with further injuring his ward by ‘failing’ to take the steps necessary for the appointment of a committee for the father to protect the latter’s interest in the son’s estate through the exercise of the father’s right to elect against the excessive educational gift made in the son’s will to the University of Detroit.

The Defendant, as guardian of the father, was appointed as such by order of the Surrogate in the validation proceeding of the son’s will. The mother’s will, as noted above, was drawn by another attorney who also supervised its execution three days before the mother’s death. Brooklyn Probate Lawyers said while the evidence adduced disclosed that defendant, while acting as the father’s guardian was told by the mother in the early part that the latter wanted to make the defendant a beneficiary of her will, the fact is clear that it was not until the mother finalized her plans to do so by the execution of her will. While the plaintiff has attempted to show that the defendant, as guardian of the father in the son’s estate was placed in a position of conflict with his ward by virtue of defendant’s interest in the mother’s will, no such conclusion can be drawn from the record.

At no time did a will made by the mother Exist in which the defendant-guardian was named a beneficiary until three days before the mother died. Neither is there evidence that the defendant-guardian inveigled the mother into naming him as a beneficiary in her will; rather, the evidence shows that the mother advised the defendant-guardian of her testamentary thoughts and inclinations and the defendant-guardian, quite properly, provided her with the name of an attorney with whom she could consult for the purpose of drawing her will (who was the same attorney who had already appeared on her behalf in the validation proceeding of the son’s will). These facts, in and of themselves, do not mean that this defendant-guardian wrote himself into the mother’s will. The mother did consult with her own attorney who drew her will pursuant to her instructions. Her husband was her only beneficiary and her plan for his benefit, as set forth in her will, was consistent with his circumstances of advanced age and disability–circumstances which certainly warranted his being cared for through the medium of a trust with liberal powers of invasion rather than his being bequeathed a substantial portion of the estate outright.

More importantly, however, is the fact that there has been no showing that the defendant-guardian’s knowledge of a possible interest in the mother’s testamentary plans worked to the father’s detriment. The defendant-guardian duly filed objections on behalf of his ward, the father, to the validation of the son’s will and objections to the validation of the mother’s will were duly filed by the plaintiff, the father’s administrator. Thus, the father’s rights in both validation proceedings were protected and preserved and the objections to validation would ultimately have been judicially determined were it not for the subsequent agreement and stipulations of settlement which took place among the various parties.

The Plaintiff has predicated his main charge of malpractice against the defendant-guardian upon the latter’s failure to seek an advisory opinion from the Surrogate with respect to the exercise of the father’s right to elect against the excessive gift for educational purposes made in the son’s will. All parties agree that this right conferred by the statute is personal and must be exercised during the father’s lifetime to be effective. It is the plaintiff’s contention that had the defendant-guardian properly performed his duty, a committee for the father should have been appointed who could have then received the requisite judicial permission to exercise the right of election on the father’s behalf.

In summary, while the Court is not unmindful of the strict duty of allegiance owed by a guardian to his ward, that duty pertains only to the proceeding then existing and cannot be extended, as the plaintiff would here, to matters falling outside the issues presented for resolution in the immediate proceeding then before the Court. Accordingly, this Court finds no cause of action stated and dismisses the complaint herein.

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