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.

Case Study No. 2: The Discovery Process in Surrogate’s Court

We received a call one day from two brothers complaining of their sister.  Their father had a long term, prior estate plan providing for his children equally.  Right before his death, the plan changed, and their father cut them down and provided a much larger portion of his estate to their sister.   

Around the time of the change, their father had experienced significant tragedy in his life.  His wife had passed away, his dog had died, and he was in and out of the hospital.  The daughter and her husband had also driven him to the attorney appointments to make the change to the will. 

In this type of case, the clients want to know what happened and why the decedent decided to suddenly change his estate plan.  As with a lot of probate disputes, the first step is therefore to ascertain what occurred.  To accomplish this, we generally appear on the citation date and request a scheduling order to obtain document discovery prior to the 1404 examination.   

After obtaining the scheduling order, we served an extensive document demand on the estate.  We requested items such as the estate’s case file, the father’s medical records, financial information, phone records, and written communications and emails.  As in every case, we were particularly interested in communications between the decedent and the key players – the drafting attorney, the fiduciary, and the beneficiaries. 

The estate in this case did not timely serve responses to our document demands.  It sought to delay and ask for several adjournments. To address this problem, we could have gotten the court involved.  The problem was that it could take several months for the court to resolve the issue. 

We elected instead to go around the estate for much of the information requested by engaging in third-party discovery.  So instead of waiting for the estate’s production, which could have taken months and which would likely produce only some of the documents, we simply obtained the estate file from the drafting attorney and served third party subpoenas to get the rest of the information we wanted.  As a result, we obtained much more information from the third parties in a much shorter period of time.

When we finally received the estate’s document response, we noticed that certain documents were unsigned, incomplete, or missing.  We made follow up requests with the estate and after several attempts to obtain the missing information and an office visit by me to inspect the original file, we ended up obtaining additional records and electronic data that had been omitted from the earlier production.  That information included important attorney records and notes, making them highly relevant and useful for cross examination.

So, to sum up the two main lessons from this case study, 1. we insist on receiving the complete estate case file from the drafting attorney prior to the exam, and 2. we go on a scavenger hunt for as much information as possible.

FIDUCIARY COMPENSATION

“We don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes.” Leona Helmsley

This is what Leona Helmsley’s summer house keeper testified that Mrs. Helmsley had previously said, during a 1989 tax evasion trial that resulted in Mrs. Helmsley serving 19 months in jail.  At trial, her own lawyer described her as a “tough bitch”.  Leona Helmsley was known as the “Queen of Mean” for her heaping cruelty meted out toward her employees in her real estate empire worth billions.  She was legendary in penny pinching her employees, returning used shoes to stores for refund and gipping contractors that worked on her properties.  When her only child died she served his widow with an eviction notice shortly after the funeral and took judgment against his estate for a debt and property that she claimed he had borrowed from her.  It seems that while she was alive she paid no one fairly.

Mrs. Helmsley died in 2007.  Her husband (number three) Harry, predeceased her in 1997.  Fortunately for Mrs. Helmsley, she got what she wanted:  he left her his entire estate estimated to be well over $5 billion.

Her estate plan was what one would expect under the circumstances.  It cut out certain family members and manifest some rough edges.  Mrs. Helmsley’s estate in large part was left to a charitable trust.  Her Maltese dog, Trouble, was benefitted by a $12 million trust fund.  It was reduced by the court as excessive based upon litigation and alleged lack of capacity.  The court determination included providing benefit for some relatives.

In August 2019, the New York County Surrogate made a final determination on the application for judicial settlement of the final account of Mrs. Helmsley’s executors (See In re Judicial Settlement of the Final Account of Proceedings of Panzirer, 2019 N.Y. Misc. Lexis 4512).  Ironically, the focus of the court’s attention was the matter of determining reasonable compensation for the fiduciaries.

Mrs. Helmsley’s will stated that her executors were not to receive statutory commissions.  Instead, her will stated:

“Any one or more executors…may render services to the Estate…as an officer, manager or employee of the Estate…, or in any other capacity, notwithstanding the fact that they may appoint themselves to serve in such capacities, and they shall be entitled to receive reasonable compensation for such services.  No such person shall be required to furnish any bond in connection with such employment.”

The executors commenced a proceeding to be paid and filed their account.  The executors asserted that the estate was mammoth and highly complex and that they were responsible for enormous risk and potentially exposed to personal liability.  Thus, they sought $100 million ($25 million each).  This was based on well settled law in New York, concerning established factors on which reasonable compensation is to be determined (See In re Estate of Freeman, 34 N.Y.2d 1, 311 N.E.2d 480, 355 N.Y.S.2d 336 [1974]; In re Potts’ Estate, 213 A.D. 59, 209 N.Y.S. 655 [4th Dept 1925], affd 241 NY 593, 150 N.E. 568 [1925]). 

The Attorney General objected.  The Attorney General did not allege impropriety, but instead claimed that the amount sought was not “reasonable compensation.” 

The argument made was that a proposed methodology akin to quantum meruit should apply.  Only time spent should be considered, rather than the long standing law favoring multi factor analysis.  According to the Attorney General, her theoretical time and rate based formula should determine the result.

In a well reasoned and thoughtful determination the Surrogate crushed the opposition of the Attorney General, rejecting it entirely, as “misguided at best” and “simply wrong.”  The Attorney General argued that the compensation “should be based on a simple arithmetic formula which considers only the reasonable amount of time spent multiplied by an appropriate hourly rate.”  Incredibly, the Attorney General further argued that the court should appoint an expert to advise on the reasonable value of each executor’s contribution to the estate, based upon services actually rendered and based on the individual knowledge of and skills of each.

The position taken by the Attorney General was baseless and incredibly wrong.  The determination of the court reflects a displeasure with the arguments lacking any legal support.  The court stated that the Attorney General herself, self promulgated certain “guidelines” that the court found to simply be “unworkable”, and “which would foist an unwieldly time consuming and costly process onto the parties and the estate.”  Further, rejecting the notion of appointment of an expert, the court found that would involve the retention of additional professionals to help the expert, necessitate more discovery, and possibly a hearing – all at the additional expense of the estate.  Finally, the court reminded the Attorney General that the Surrogate is uniquely qualified to determine fiduciary compensation based upon the reasonable compensation standard.  The court does that routinely in these cases.  The Legislature conferred that authority to the court (see SCPA 1412(7) re preliminary executors, 2312 re corporate trustees, and 2110 re attorneys).

Despite the efforts of the Attorney General, Leona Helmsley’s fiduciaries will be fairly compensated after all.

Preparing for the SCPA 1404 Exam: Case Study

Prior to filing objections to the validity of a decedent’s will, we conduct a thorough investigation into the facts of the case.  This requires us to examine the estate case file, the fiduciary’s records, and the decedent’s personal papers and communications.  We review the drafting attorney’s work product, criticize it, and try to tear it apart.  At the end of the day, our goal is to provide our clients with answers and advice about whether to file objections.

            In one particular case, we were confronted with a situation where the decedent disinherited his family members and left the bulk of his estate to someone he had met on the internet and knew for a very short period of time.  Sadly, the decedent ended up committing suicide shortly after. 

            We conducted a very thorough investigation into the facts of this case to prepare for the 1404 exam.  We first served an extensive document demand on the estate.  We requested items such as the estate’s case file and the decedent’s medical records, financial information, and written communications.  As in every case, we were particularly interested in communications between and among the decedent, the drafting attorney, the fiduciary, and the beneficiaries.

            We also served subpoenas on third party entities to obtain records, including the decedent’s phone records, emails, internet dating messages, and social media communications.  We were also able to obtain the case file of the police investigation into the decedent’s suicide.

            In this case, we went a step further than we normally do.  We hired a computer forensic examiner to examine the decedent’s computer.  As a result, we were able to view snapshots of emails and messages, as well as numerous word documents, PDFs and photographs that were located on the computer.  We were also able to view a list of the internet sites the decedent visited, the internet searches he conducted, and the places he may have driven based the addresses he typed into Google maps.

            By the time we got to the 1404 exam, we had a wealth of information to use for cross examination.

Business Succession Agreements

It is important for businesses to plan ahead.  It is especially true to plan for those events that are foreseeable.  Whether we want to admit it or not, there will come a time when we will no longer be able to continue working.  It is also true of business owners. But what happens to the business when the founder or key member of the company retires, has a serious illness or dies?  That is where the business succession agreement comes into play.

A business succession agreement can address a multitude of issues that may arise when there is a change in the business’s management.  Among other things, it can specify what the roles and responsibilities of the new controlling members will be and under what circumstances the succession plan will be implemented. 

It can be especially difficult when these events involve family businesses.  If not properly addressed in a succession agreement, litigation between family members may arise or the family business may not survive.  For example, in Crabapple Corp v Elberg (153 AD3d 434 [1st Dept 2017]), siblings became embroiled in litigation over who would become the managing member of the family’s business after the death of their father. There was no succession agreement regarding the management of the LLC in the event of the death of their father, the majority member. 

Ruben Elberg, the son of Jacob Elberg, asserted that he was the sole managing member of the LLC.  His sister, Tamara, as co-executor of their father’s estate, asserted that their father was the sole owner of the LLC and that she was the LLC’s co-manager by virtue of her status as the co-executor, along with Ruben.  The record demonstrated that Ruben was a minority member and not a managing member.   Pursuant to Limited Liability Company Law § 608, the executor of a deceased member may exercise all of the member’s rights for the purpose of settling his or her estate.  Therefore, the Court held that their father’s controlling interest in the LLC passed to his estate upon his death, and Ruben and Tamara, as co-executors of the estate, both had authority as co-managers of the LLC.

Even where a succession agreement exists, if not carefully drafted, litigation may still occur.  In Shyer v Shyer (2019 NY Misc LEXIS 4022 [Sup Ct, New York Co, July 18, 2019]), after the death of Robert, one of the four siblings who owned and managed Zyloware Corporation, the company filed a third-party complaint against his widow, the preliminary executrix of his estate,  in her individual capacity, for among other things, wrongful interference with a contract.

In Shyer, the Shareholders Agreement and Master Executive Employment Agreement the siblings entered into were to formalize the succession of leadership in the company.  Pursuant to the Shareholders Agreement, the company informed Robert’s estate that it intended to purchase his remaining shares along with the price it was willing to pay for those shares.  Robert’s widow, on behalf of the estate, rejected the company’s terms.  She claimed that the company’s offer breached the Shareholder Agreement.  The company claimed the estate’s actions breached the agreement as it “ran contrary to the Shareholders Agreement.

The company alleged that the widow, in her individual capacity, improperly interfered with the Shareholders Agreement by inducing the estate to breach the shareholders agreement by failing and refusing to deliver the shares to the company no later than the Closing.  The company alleged that the widow procured the estate’s breach by forcing and directing the estate to act contrary to its contractual obligations.  The company alleged that she, as preliminary executrix, caused the estate to breach the agreements. 

The company argued that the widow was implicated in her role as preliminary executrix of the estate since the estate could act only at her behest as she was the “sole executor” of the estate.  The company claimed that the estate’s actions in allegedly breaching the shareholders agreement could not be “decoupled” from the widow’s ordering the estate to do so.

The court however reasoned that the claim that the widow interfered with the Shareholders Agreement was tantamount to a claim that she should be held personally liable for the estate breaching the Shareholders Agreement.  It held that the widow’s actions did not describe the procurement of a breach, but the breach itself.

Under New York Estates Powers and Trusts Law § 11-4.7(b), a personal representative is individually liable for obligations arising from ownership or control of the estate or for torts committed in the course of administration of the estate only if she failed to exercise reasonable care, diligence and prudence.

The court held that the company’s claim threatened to circumvent the statutory standard for imposing personal liability on estate administrators.  The company’s allegations against the widow stemmed from her “control of the estate or for torts committed in the course of administration of the estate.”  The company did not allege that the widow “failed to exercise reasonable care, diligence, [or] prudence.”  Although the court dismissed the company’s claim against the widow in her individual capacity, it did go on to say that the company could still sue the estate for breach of contract.

Planning for succession in a business, including a closely held family business, can help ensure the continuity of the management and operation of the business long after the founder or majority manager is gone.

Contribution by Jacque K. Vincent, J.D.

Disinheritance Problem Solved – Part 2

Solution

New York law permits a person making her estate plan to cut a pre probate deal with the person who will be cut out.  More specifically, this includes before the testator’s or parent’s death or lack of capacity.  This means that the person to be cut out can be dealt with directly by the testator or parent during the testator’s or parent’s life and on the testator’s own terms.  There are many benefits to this.  First, the person being cut out is required to deal directly with the testator or parent during the testator’s life – rather than fighting with siblings after the testator has died.  The strategy can reduce family strife after the decedent has died.  The commonly asked “why question” in connection with the testator’s estate plan, is answered during the testator’s life, i.e. by the parent, rather than in the court room in the context of a 1404 hearing.  There is immediacy.  In fact, the person cut out of the estate receives his funds (the carrot absent the string) first and before all those sharing in the estate.  There is certainty.  Attorney’s fees and the substantial costs of litigation are curtailed or eliminated. 

Mrs. Cook and Her Niece

Here is how the rule evolved from the thoughtful estate planning efforts of a widow.  In the early 1920s the Court of Appeals decided In re Cook’s Will 244 NY 63, a case which arose in Washington County.  Mrs. Cook was an elderly widow of wealth and decided to make a will disposing of her property to charities.  Her only heirs and next of kin were a sister, a niece and two nephews.  They all were all adults and not close with her.  In preparing for the disposition of her property, she wrote to her niece as follows:

Dear Katherine:

In making my will, it was my intention to bequeath you something.  After consideration, it occurred to me that it will give me greater pleasure to give it now, and you to receive it now, and in doing so I am asking you if you would be willing to sign and receipt an agreement, agreeing that in consideration of this gift now, that you agree that you will not at any time contest or join with others in contesting my will.  The same conditions apply to your (2) brothers, who must also sign such an agreement. *** Kindly let me have full names and addresses of your brothers.

Her niece’s reply indicated that she was glad to receive the gift from her Aunt as her brothers and herself were trying to secure a home for their respective families.  Having failed to state, however, anything about contesting the will, another letter followed on February 8, 1924, written by G.E Knowlton, on behalf of Mrs. Cook, where he stated:

Dear Mrs. Russell:

Mrs. Robert H. Cook has handed me your letter of January 21st in which you state that you would appreciate a gift from her, but you do not say that you will refrain from contesting her will.

May I ask you to be good enough to advise Mrs. Cook as to your attitude in this matter.

A few days afterwards her niece replied:

Dear Aunt Julia:

I am sorry that I omitted to state in my letter that I would agree to the agreements mentioned in your letter. I both appreciate and agree to those conditions.

Thereafter, her niece signed and sent to Mrs. Cook the following agreement:

Dated March 5, 1924.

Received from: Francis Julia Cook

….Dollars

As a gift from her and in consideration of this gift, I agree that I will not at any time contest or join with others in contesting her Will.

The court was confronted with the question:  Having received the advances or gifts under the circumstances, can these heirs and next of kin of Mrs. Cook now contest her will? 

Despite these writings they tried to do so. They alleged that Mrs. Cook was incompetent, and that her will was procured by fraud and undue influence.  In upholding the validity of the agreements not to contest Mrs. Cook’s will, the court held that agreements not to contest another’s will are not void as against public policy.  Further, the court stated that agreements made between heirs and next of kin after the death of the decedent have always been found valid when made in good faith.  Agreements made before the death of the testator regarding the future disposition to be made of the estate are akin to those implied in the taking of a legacy bequeathed upon the condition stated in the will that no contest shall be made.

The rule in New York, is that where a distributee in consideration of a gift from the family member (testator/decedent) during her lifetime, has agreed not to challenge the decedent’s will, he shall not file objections.  The central element of the rule is that by contracting with the decedent for the present day benefit, the distributee divests himself of legal standing to challenge the will.

The effective solution is an arrangement structured as a deal or a contract.  The deal is that the distributee receives present day benefit (payment) in exchange for the agreement not to the challenge the parent’s will on death.  The problem person or child is required to contract away, relinquish and waive the right to challenge the decedent’s will.  The approach is well founded in New York law such that it must be considered as an alternative to years of potential litigation between the disinherited distributee and the estate after the testator has died.

There are some important steps to be followed to avoid litigation.  The proper approach is significant because the ultimate arbiter of the validity of the agreement will be the Surrogate Judge after the testator has died and the distributee attempts to get out of the agreement.  It is recommended that experienced and strong lawyers be involved in the process.  To this end, it is important to have the distributee represented by his own lawyers.  He should not be represented by the decedent’s lawyers.  If money is an issue, the gift can include payment of the distributee’s legal fees under certain circumstances.  The process should be considered as one involving the negotiation of a contract or in the planning context, similar to negotiation of a waiver of a spousal right of election.

As was the case for Mrs. Cook, when done correctly a pre mortum and pre probate gift to a problem person or child can be efficacious and highly successful strategy to avoid estate litigation.

Disinheritance Problem- Solved

Intentions to disinherit in connection with the making of wills are not uncommon.  Disinheritance circumstances give rise to acrimony and much litigation.  In many cases, children and family members often find themselves dealing with these circumstances.

Clients planning their estates often are confounded with how to deal with a formed intention to cut someone out of sharing in the estate.  Putting feelings and emotions aside, it is a matter of carrying out the decedent’s intentions, money and fairness. 

Common Ineffective Solution Attempt

In estate cases in New York, many challenged estate plans contain an in terrorem clause with an additional provision stating that the particular person is cut out or left nothing.  It is not uncommon for a will to make specific reference to the fact that the decedent specifically considered and deliberately intended to leave the person out of the plan.  In some instances, no reasons are stated.  In other cases, no mention of the person is made. 

There are other cases where the will expressly states that the person cut out will not benefit from the will and advances the intended double whammy threat that if the person cut out challenges the will, that person is automatically cut out.  The client drawing the will feels satisfied.

This is a failing strategy and plan.  Coupling the in terrorem clause with a provision that the ditributee, problem person or child receives nothing sets up a guaranteed challenge to the will.   The double whammy threat is empty, meaningless and ineffectual.  In fact, in practice the attempted solution often invites litigation and has no estate litigation deterrent effect whatsoever.

Better Solution Attempt

Quite simply and more properly the in terrorem clause should actually be coupled with a sufficient and enticing incentive.  Think of the cart driver dangling the carrot in front of the mule on the stick extended in front of the animal’s mouth.  For illustration, include in the will an in terrorem clause with a specific bequest of say $20,000 for the problem person.  The incentive of a specific bequest in the plan coupled with the potential for enforcement of the in terrorem clause creates significant risk of forfeiture of the bequeathed sum.  The particular sum in each case must be thoughtfully determined, and often it is not or circumstances change.

This solution is entirely acceptable but in the context of litigation, can be a failure. The carrot and stick approach still subjects the plan to risk and chance – up in the air for future lawsuits.  There is a better approach, which will be discussed in the next blog post.

Estate Litigation Post-Divorce and Separation Agreements

Many trust, estate and probate litigation cases in New York are engendered by divorce. The great wealth transfer presumably will grow the trend of estate related disputes arising from circumstances of divorce. There are many reasons why the dissolution of a marital relationship can cause estate litigation. Wealth and emotion often are the primary drivers. This single case experience raises many common issues and reflects a litigated final outcome.

Facts
Mom and dad married in the 1960s. During the course of the marriage dad worked long hours and mom raised two children who were the product of the marriage. When the children were in high school mom and dad separated and then ultimately, became divorced, after about twenty years of marriage. Mom raised the two children and did not remarry. They got by on mom’s hard work and commitment to the children.

Mom was not happy about this outcome, as she had intended to remain married until she found out that dad had not been true to his vows. Mom, feeling scorned, set out to do the best that she could for herself and her children monetarily in the divorce proceedings. She retained counsel.

In the divorce proceedings dad offered present day, “price of freedom” assets like stocks and bonds and bank accounts. Mom accepted the offerings. The signed separation agreement also contained a provision that was not in focus at the time. It appeared natural and what was later described as some boilerplate language. The terms offered no present-day money or solace to the mom. When the division of the marital assets was finally determined by the separation agreement, it stated: mom and dad each agree to bequeath outright or in trust at least one – half of his or her adjusted gross estate to their children in equal shares, per stirpes.

The separation agreement defined “adjusted gross estate” as “the entire value of the decedent’s gross estate for federal estate tax purposes, less deductible funeral and administrative expenses, claims against the estate and a pro rata share of mortgages or indebtedness on property which is included in the gross estate, but not including any community property.” With respect to community property it stated that if either spouse owned any community property on death, “then the portion which is not vested in the spouse of either of them shall be bequeathed, either outright or in trust, to his or her children equally, per stirpes.”

Dad went on to marry his paramour, and they remained married for many years. They accumulated wealth and assets together. They commingled what they each brought into the marriage with the other’s assets. They had accounts set up that were titled in both of their names, as husband and wife, and they bought real property together and similarly titled it. They had a long marriage at Shangri- La, which brought no children, where they shared everything among themselves.

Years later, dad became ill. His two children were now independent adults living far away and with limited, if any, connections to him. He had a will prepared by an attorney that provided for all of his wealth to pass to his wife (number two). Wife number two fully participated in his planning process with his counsel. She was aware of his then stated intentions on death that everything they had went to her as well as the content of his will. She cared for him in his illness and until he died.

His will provided that on his death his wife would become the executrix of his estate. He left the residuary of his estate to her, in trust, and on her death the remainder of the trust was to be divided into two equal shares for his daughters.

After his death, his ex-wife remained mindful of their children. She produced the separation agreement anticipating that wife number two would comply in providing each of the children from the first marriage with their respective share of their father’s estate.

Dad’s wife refused to comply. His two children sued her and his estate. Their mother was not a party to the lawsuit. Wife number two advanced several reasons and justifications to the court for her position.

She made the classic estate litigation argument, that the outcome under the agreement was not the decedent’s intent. She argued that Dad intended for his second wife to receive everything.

Her position was that the decedent’s intent was manifest by his recent last will – not a separation agreement made with an ex-spouse five decades prior. Dad made a will and engaged in joint estate planning with wife number two, where the joint plan was for her to get it all. Her position was that the will controlled his estate over that old agreement.

She argued that she owned everything outright. Dad and wife number two had titled and retitled the marital assets in such a manner that they became hers on death by operation of law. Her counsel argued that the assets Dad owned at the time of this death were in his name jointly with his wife as tenants by the entirety. Thus, the assets were already hers.

Her further position was that there was no estate and that if there were, there were no assets in it. Since there was nothing in the estate as result of the retitling, wife number two, as his executrix, would not file a petition for probate of the will with the New York Surrogate’s Court. She argued that there was no need to probate the will.

Her attorneys also argued that since wife number two and the estate were not parties (did not sign) the separation agreement, therefore, it was not binding on them.

All of these arguments are common in these cases (See, e.g., Estate of Coffed, 59 AD2d 297 [4th Dept 1977], affd 46 NY2d 514 [1979]; Rubenstein v Mueller, 19 NY2d 228 [1967], and Matter of Shvachko, 2016 NY Misc LEXIS 3742 [Sur Ct New York County, October 14, 2016]). They are losers. In 2008, the New York State Legislature enacted EPTL 5-1.4 that provides for the automatic revocation of the fiduciary on divorce (see Matter of Sugg, 49 Misc 3d 455 [Sur Ct Erie County, June 29, 2015][holding former spouse’s designation as beneficiary to insurance policy is ineffective unless expressly provided otherwise]). The old rule made no such provisions and allowed for some awkward administrations of estates. Smart divorce lawyers counsel their clients to obtain strong and competent estate planning advice at the outset, during and post-divorce proceedings. It seems that in many cases they counsel their clients to change their wills at the outset, in recognition of the New York’s rule that one cannot entirely disinherit one’s spouse. Instead, by EPTL 5-1-1-A the legislature enacted a law whereby a spouse may elect a one third share of the other spouse’s estate regardless of what the will says. Further, where there is no will, the spouse of the decedent is provided for under the rules of intestacy EPTL 4-1.1.

This is a thumbnail sketch of the issues in one case. the ultimate outcome here was that the two daughters received their fair shares of their father’s estate in the end.

Inheritance By Non-Marital Children

I recently read an article on People.com about a poor young man who became “Lord of the Manor” after DNA proved he was the heir of a wealthy British aristocrat (https://people.com/human-interest/care-worker-inherits-60-million-english-estate-dna-test/). This got me wondering what happens in New York when a non-marital child shows up after the parent is deceased and demands his inheritance. Does he have a right to inherit Mom or Dad’s estate? How do the marital children, if any, respond to his demands?

New York Estates, Powers and Trust Law Section 4-1.2 specifically addresses the question of inheritance by non-marital children. In New York, a non-marital child is the legitimate child of his mother and can inherit from his mother and from her family unless specifically excluded.

But, the rules are different for a non-marital child to inherit from his father’s estate. Before a non-marital child can inherit from his father, paternity must first be established. Section 4-1.2 sets out three methods to establish paternity: (i) an order of filiation issued by a court during the lifetime of the father; (ii) a signed acknowledgement of paternity by the father; or (iii) clear and convincing evidence of paternity, which may include, but is not limited to, DNA evidence or evidence that the father openly and notoriously acknowledged the child as his own.

In some situations, the father either did not know about the child, or he kept the existence of his secret love-child from his family. One way an unknown or secret non-marital child can establish paternity would be through DNA evidence. The burden is on the non-marital child to prove he is the decedent’s child with clear and convincing evidence. First, the non-marital child must commence a Surrogate’s Court proceeding to establish inheritance rights to the father’s estate. A pre-trial motion can then be made for an order to posthumously perform a DNA test.

A court may grant a motion for posthumous DNA testing where the non-marital child provides some evidence that the decedent openly and notoriously acknowledged paternity and establishes that the testing is practicable and reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. (Matter of Poldrugovaz, 50 AD3d 117, 129 [2d Dept 2008].) Factors that courts consider include (i) whether evidence presented demonstrates a reasonable possibility that the testing will establish a match; (ii) the practicability of obtaining the tissue sample for the purpose of conducting the test, including whether it is readily available; (iii) whether there is a need to exhume the decedent’s body or obtain the sample from a nonparty; (iv) whether appropriate safeguards were, or will be, taken to insure the reliability of the genetic material to be tested; and (v) the privacy and religious concerns of the decedent and or his family members. (Matter of Betz, 74 AD3d 1459, 1463 [3d Dept 2010].) The rule is to safeguard the estates of decedents from fraudulent claims. The last thing grieving families need is to have someone show up claiming to be their father’s child and demanding his inheritance without any evidence to back up his claim.

Contribution by Jacque K. Vincent, J.D.