In New York, the Surrogate’s Court system has jurisdiction over estate matters. There are Surrogate’s Courts in each county in New York. The proper venue for an estate proceeding is determined by where the decedent was domiciled at the time of their death. Domicile refers to the location where a person has their primary home. Determining domicile can be tricky when someone is a long-term patient at a healthcare facility. In the case of In re the Estate of Bonora, the Surrogate’s Court had to determine whether the decedent was a resident of Kings County or Richmond County at the time of her death.
For many years before her death, decedent Palma Bonora resided in Kings County, New York. However, on March 31, 2008, she was admitted to St. Elizabeth Ann’s Health Care and Rehabilitation in Staten Island, Richmond County, New York. She passed away on July 12, 2013 while she was still a patient there. The Public Administrator of Richmond County file for letters of administration and was granted temporary letters on December 13, 2013. The Public Administrator of Kings County moved to intervene and filed objections, alleging that there are common questions of law or fact, including whether the decedent was domiciled in Richmond County or Kings County at the time of her death.
The Public Administrator of Richmond County responded by opposing the motion, alleging that the Public Administrator of Kings County has no interest in the proceeding and that there are no common questions of law or fact.
The Surrogate’s Court noted that both parties agree that prior to the removal of the decedent to Richmond County, she was a Kings County domiciliary. Further, there was no question that she had lacked the requisite mental capacity to change her domicile from Kings County to Richmond County.
The Public Administrator of Kings County alleges that because the decedent did not have the mental capacity to change her domicile from Kings County to Richmond County, it was impossible to find that she was domiciled in Richmond County at the time of her death. The Public Administrator of Kings County also argues that when a person is a ward of the state, only a court can explicitly effectuate a change of their domicile. In the alternative, the Public Administrator of Kings County argued that the decedent’s article 81 guardian did not have the requisite intent to change the decedent’s domicile.
The Public Administrator of Richmond County responded that the law allows a court-appointed guardian to change an incompetent’s domicile without a court order if it is done in good faith and in the best interests of the ward.
Domicile is defined as a fixed, permanent and principal home to which a person wherever temporarily located always intends to return. SCPA 103 (15). Once established, domicile can only be changed if the person intentionally abandoned or replaced by another. The court notes that while a person can have several residences, they can have only one domicile.
The person who seeks to prove that there was a change in domicile must present clear and convincing evidence of the change. Because an incompetent person lacks the capacity to form the intent to make a change, they generally retain the domicile that existed at the time that he or she became incompetent. See Matter of Urdang, 194 AD2d 615 (1993).
However, what is not as clear is whether the court-appointed fiduciary of the person is empowered, without express authorization from the court, to change the ward’s domicile. A review of caselaw indicates that factors to consider in determining if a fiduciary had been implicitly authorized to change the domicile of a ward:
- Length of relationship with the location of changed domicile;
- The probability the individual will live out his or her life in the location of changed domicile;
- The abandonment of a residence in the prior domicile;
- The absence of any other abode other than that which exists in the location of changed domicile
- The existence of relatives who can provide the intangibles of love and affection who live near the location of changed domicile.
The court concluded that after applying these factors, it was clear that the court-appointed guardian of the decedent changed her domicile from Kings County to Richmond County. As a result, the matter must be transferred from Kings County to Richmond County.