How Does the Estate Recover Property Wrongfully Taken from the Decedent and Who Has the Burden of Proof?

SCPA Article 21 provides a procedural vehicle for the Estate to recover assets wrongfully obtained from a decedent.   The Estate’s fiduciary may file a petition under these provisions to identify and recover estate assets held by a third party.

“The fiduciary bears the burden to prove that property held by a respondent is an estate asset” (Dwyer v Valachovic, 137 AD3d 1369, 1370 [3d Dept 2016]; Matter of Elam, 140 AD3d 754, 755-756 [2d Dept 2016]).  Where the respondent alleges that the property was lawfully gifted to him or her, however, the respondent has the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, the elements of a valid gift (see Matter of Lang, 53 AD2d 836 [1st Dept 1976]; Matter of Flamenbaum, 6 Misc 2d 122 [Sur Ct, Westchester County 1957]; Estate of Daly, 2 Misc. 2d 570 [Surrogate’s Ct, New York County 1955]).

It is well settled that “to make a valid inter vivos gift there must exist the intent on the part of the donor to make a present transfer; delivery of the gift, either actual or constructive to the donee; and acceptance by the donee” (Matter of Fenlon, 95 AD3d 1406, 1407 [3d Dept 2012] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).  The person claiming a gift “has the burden of proving each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence” (id.; see Roberts v Jossen, 99 AD2d 1002 [1st Dept 1984]; see generally Turano, Practice Commentaries, McKinney’s Cons Laws of NY, Book 58A, SCPA 2104, at 415).

“He who attempts to establish title to property through a gift inter vivos as against the estate of a decedent takes upon himself a heavy burden which he must support by evidence of great probative force, which clearly establishes every element of a valid gift” (Matter of Conners, 24 AD2d 681, 682 [3d Dept 1965] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]).  “[A] gift is never presumed, and the evidence must be inconsistent with any other intention or purpose” (Matter of Kelligrew, 19 Misc 3d 1135[A], 1135A, 2008 NY Slip Op 51010[U], *9 [Sur Ct, Westchester County 2008]). 

The Top 5 Types Of Documents to Request Prior to the SCPA 1404 Examination

When representing clients looking to challenge a will, we like to take full advantage of pre-objection discovery.  It is particularly helpful to review as much information about the decedent as possible prior to conducting the SCPA 1404 examination. We like to request and review the following types of documents:

Drafting Attorney’s Case File.  The best source for cross examination will be the drafting attorney’s case file.  We are particularly interested in the billing records, the attorney notes, and the correspondence.

Medical Records.  If we have the medical and financial records, we will use them to test the witnesses’ knowledge of the decedent’s health.  We will ask the drafting attorney and the attesting witnesses about their interactions with the decedent and whether they were aware of any physical or mental conditions suffered by the decedent.  Often, these witnesses may have been completely ignorant of significant underlying conditions, thereby calling into question the reliability of their opinions about the decedent’s capacity and the lack of undue influence.

If we do not have medical records in time for the exam, however, we may still proceed without the medical records to avoid delay.  To account for this, we will ask the witnesses about their knowledge of the decedent’s health and what the decedent told them about it.  We will then later compare the answers to the records we later obtain to see if the answers are accurate.

Phone Records.  If we have the phone records, we can determine how many times the decedent called the law office, the beneficiaries, and anyone else.  We may compare the records to the witnesses’ answers about durations of calls and the number of calls.  If the decedent told the witness that he or she did not have communications with our clients, we will check the phone records to see if the statement was accurate.

Prior Estate Planning Documents.  We look to prior estate planning documents to see if there was a deviation in the decedent’s estate plan and how long the prior plan existed.  We often ask the witnesses about their knowledge of a deviation and the reason given by the decedent for it.

Financial Records and Credit Card Statements.  We look to financial records and beneficiary change forms to see if the decedent gifted any funds to the beneficiaries and if any power of attorney was used to transfer funds on the decedent’s behalf.  Again, we ask the witnesses if they were aware of any of these circumstances when the will was executed. 

We also look to credit card statements to see where the decedent was at or around the time of the will execution and who the decedent may have been communicating with.  We also try to compare this information to other sources, such as the decedent’s emails, appointment book, calendar, and contact lists.