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.

Renunciation Of An Inheritance Part 1

Most people welcome receiving an inheritance, but there are times when an inheritance causes problems for the beneficiary. Some beneficiaries want to avoid receiving their inheritance for tax purposes, while others may want to avoid paying a creditor. “Motives or reasons for the renunciation have no bearing on this statutory right, as long as no fraud or collusion is involved.” Matter of Oot, 95 Misc 2d 702, 705 (Sur Ct, Onondaga County 1978).    

Matter of Rosenberg, 2016 NY Misc LEXIS 261 (New York County, January 27, 2016) is an interesting case that involved renunciation for estate tax purposes. In this case, the decedent Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish art collector and dealer who lived in France, owned two paintings by Henri Matisse. In 1940, the Nazis confiscated the paintings. In 2012, the paintings were discovered and determined to belong to the Rosenberg’s who had immigrated to New York. The paintings were valued at over $12 million.

Paul Rosenberg died in 1959. Paul bequeathed half of his residuary estate to his son Alexandre or, in the event that Alexandre did not survive him, to Alexandre’s children. Alexandre died in 1987, survived by his wife and children. Alexandre bequeathed his residuary estate to his wife or, in the event that she disclaimed her interest, to a Marital Trust for her benefit. Alexandre’s wife did indeed disclaim, and as a result, his children were to receive any assets that pass as part of his residuary estate.

Alexandre’s wife petitioned the Surrogate’s Court to permit Alexandre’s estate to renounce an interest in the newly discovered paintings and any works of art discovered in the future that would be found to be assets of Paul’s estate. Her reason for the renunciation was to spare her children the cost of estate tax that would be payable otherwise. EPTL 2-1.11 (c)(2) gives the court discretion to extend the time to file and serve a renunciation upon a showing of reasonable cause. Here, the Court held that the extraordinary circumstances of this case warranted its allowance to extend the petitioner’s renunciation of assets found in the future.  

Subsequently, in 2014, after the Rosenberg family learned about the discovery of several stolen pieces of art held by a German citizen, the Court granted renunciation to the estate of Alexandre. 

Renouncing a property interest for purposes of avoiding creditors is also permissible. In Matter of Oot, Patricia Hoopingarner worked for William Prescott, the petitioner, as a receptionist-bookkeeper from 1972 to 1976. In 1976, the Prescott discovered that Hoopingarner had misappropriated over $40,000. Hoopingarner signed a confession of judgment which was filed in the Clerk’s office. In 1978, her mother, Marion Oot, died and Hoopingarner was named as a legatee under the will.

As long as the beneficiary has not accepted the disposition, a legatee has a statutory right to renounce any gift made by a will (EPTL 2-1.11). Hoopingarner filed a renunciation under the will to avoid paying the judgment against her. Prescott sought to set aside the renunciation as a fraudulent conveyance. The Court held that “the fact that the renunciation of a legacy might frustrate the claims of creditors is of no consequence if the statutory renunciation procedures have been meticulously followed.” Id. at 706.

By Jacque K. Vincent, JD

Renunciation Of An Inheritance Part 2

What happens when a person renounces a bequest?

Filing a renunciation has the same effect with respect to the renounced interest as though the renouncing person had predeceased the testator unless a provision relating to a possible renunciation is included in the will. In other words, if you decide to renounce your bequest, you will be treated as if you died before the grantor did, and your share is redistributed according to the terms of the will.

In Estate of Cooper, the decedent left residuary shares of his estate to his three daughters. He did not provide any provision relating to a possible renunciation of a bequest in his will. When one daughter renounced her bequest, that portion of the estate went to her children. Estate of Cooper, 73 Misc 2d 904, 906 (Sur Ct, Onondaga County 1973).

Because the daughter’s renunciation of the bequest was treated as if she had predeceased her father, the disposition vested in her surviving children, per stirpes, in accordance with the antilapse statute.

The antilapse statute provides that where a testator has made bequeaths to his issue or his siblings, and the beneficiary dies before the testator, the deceased beneficiary’s disposition vests in his surviving issue. EPT § 3-3.3.

By Jacque K. Vincent, JD

Renunciation Of An Inheritance Part 3

Unintended Consequences of Renunciation

One issue to note is that renunciation can negatively impact a distributee’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits or other public assistance. In assessing need and eligibility, the Department of Social Services will consider any financial asset or resource the applicant may immediately or potentially have available. Courts have held that a recipient of public assistance is obligated to utilize all available resources to eliminate or reduce the need for public assistance. Although when a distributee renounces his inheritance and the disposition never vests, the Courts still allow Social Services to consider the inheritance as a potential resource for the applicant when determining eligibility. Molly v Bane, 214 AD 2d 171, 176 (2d Dept 1995).

Something else to be aware of is that proceeds recovered from an action for wrongful death cannot be renounced. Renunciation is limited to the distribution of testamentary or administration assets. Since proceeds from a wrongful death action are not passed through a testamentary instrument, renunciation is not applicable. In re Estate of Summrall, 93 Misc 2d 420 (Sur Ct, Bronx County 1978).


By Jacque K. Vincent, JD

Understanding Discovery in Probate Proceedings: Putting the Pieces Together

As explained previously, you need to be familiar with the rules of procedure to successfully play the litigation game in Surrogate’s Court. The rules can be much more complex than those applicable in the Supreme Court.

As a prime example of this, consider the rules governing discovery in Surrogate’s Court. To understand them, you need to first identify the type of proceeding at issue and then determine if the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) contains any specific rules of its own.

SCPA Sections 1404 and 1410, for example, contain specific rules that authorize pre-objection discovery in probate proceedings. They permit parties to depose certain witnesses prior to the filing of objections, generally the attesting witnesses and the drafting attorney. They also permit the party conducting the examination to obtain documents from parties and third parties of all relevant matters which may be the basis of objections to the probate petition. Section 1404 also requires the estate to pay for the cost of these examinations if they occur prior to objections.

If objections are filed, the parties may seek to engage in post-objection discovery under Article 31 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules (“CPLR”), as applicable to probate proceedings by SPCA 102. SCPA 1404, however, limits a parties’ right to re-examine the same witnesses examined during pre-objection discovery.

Parties must also be familiar with Rule 207.27 of the uniform rules for the Surrogate’s Court. This rule is referred to as the so-called “3-2 rule”. Absent special circumstances, the 3-2 rule limits the parties’ rights to obtain discovery in probate proceedings to three years before and two years after the decedent executed the will (or up until the decedent’s death, if sooner).

To make things even more confusing, you will need to review the case law interpreting the 3-2 rule. By its plain language, the rule appears to be limited to only post-objection depositions. Section 1404 also expressly provides the party conducting a pre-objection examination with “all rights granted under [CPLR] article 31 … with respect to document discovery.” Nevertheless, the rule is drafted poorly. Given the confusion, a number of cases have decided to apply this 3-2 rule uniformly to all discovery conducted in probate proceedings, including pre-objection discovery. Parties must therefore familiarize themselves with the case law on this issue and ascertain whether the Surrogate in their case has rendered any prior decisions interpreting the rule. Parties must also review the case law to ascertain whether special circumstances exist to expand the scope of discovery.

Can You Admit a Lost or Destroyed Will to Probate?

An estate practitioner may be faced with a situation where the original will of the decedent cannot be found after his or her death. Don’t worry, at least not just yet.  In such a case, SCPA 1407 provides the procedure for admitting a lost or destroyed will to probate. The first hurdle is to establish that the will has not been revoked.  However, this is no easy task.

“If a will, shown once to have existed and to have been in the Decedent’s possession, cannot be found after [his or her] death, the legal presumption is that the [decedent] destroyed the will with the intention of revoking it” (Matter of Demetriou, 48 AD3d 463, 464 [2d Dept 2008]). “The burden of proof is on the will proponent to show, by facts and circumstances, that the testator did not destroy the will with the intent to revoke it; mere speculation or suspicion is insufficient” (Matter of DiSiena, 103 AD3d 1077, 1078 [3d Dept 2013]).

We had the opportunity to litigate this issue at the Appellate Division, Third Department. In the case, the record contained evidence that the decedent had disinherited one of her sons in several wills and a revocable trust, including the most recent will offered for probate. The son had left the family business and created his own competing business. The decedent therefore left her estate (including the family business) to her remaining children who had worked for the family business and contributed to its growth. The decedent also twice fought the disinherited son in court, once to preserve her rights to remove him from her will and another time to prevent him from obtaining an interest in her business.

At the Surrogate’s Court, the disinherited son sought summary judgment dismissing the probate petition. The disinherited son argued that the lost or destroyed will created a presumption of revocation and that the record evidence was insufficient to overcome the presumption.

The Surrogate’s Court ruled in favor of the disinherited son and granted summary judgment dismissing the probate petition. The Surrogate held that the proponents of the will did not overcome the presumption, relying on the strong presumption of revocation.

On appeal, we did not dispute the heavy burden imposed on a proponent of a lost will. Rather, we focused on the record evidence and argued that there was sufficient evidence to create a question of fact on the issue.

The appellate court agreed with us and reversed the summary dismissal of the case (Matter of DiSiena, 103 AD3d 1077 [3d Dept 2013]). It determined that the record evidence amounted to more than mere speculation or suspicion about the decedent’s lack of intent to revoke her will. The record, for example, contained evidence of the prior lawsuits and the several wills of the decedent disinheriting her son. Evidence also existed that the decedent had her estate attorney store her codicil for her until her death. The decedent also met with her estate attorney in her hospital room shortly before her death to discuss further estate planning. At that time, she instructed her estate attorney to create an irrevocable trust gifting her remaining interest in the family business to the identical beneficiaries named in her prior wills and revocable trust. The decedent also signed a power of attorney appointing her three children other than respondent as her agents. An unsigned copy of the irrevocable trust documents, which expressly state that respondent is not a beneficiary, was included in the record, and the estate attorney indicated that decedent died before he was able to meet with her to sign the trust documents.

While the case turned out successfully for our clients, we would not have been able to win the appeal without a sufficient record. A practitioner should be familiar with the numerous relevant factors considered by the courts on this issue and develop the record in case to avoid summary dismissal of the probate petition.

To learn more about relevant factors and case law, feel free to contact the experienced trust and estate planning attorneys at TRK Law.

The Possible Grounds to Object: Capacity

Another major objection concerns the decedent’s testamentary capacity. A person is presumed to have sufficient mental capacity to make a will. In addition, an attesting affidavit and the supervision by an attorney also create a presumption of testamentary capacity.

The level of capacity required is a mere simple understanding of the disposition. Specifically the decedent must (1) generally understood the nature and consequences of executing a will, (2) generally know the nature and extent of the property that he or she is disposing of, and (3) generally know the natural objects of his or her bounty, and his or her relations with them.

Given this standard, you should focus on ascertaining the extent of the decedent’s communications, his appearance, demeanor, and responsiveness at and around the time of the will execution. You should examine the complexity of the will, how it was communicated to the decedent, and the level of sophistication of the decedent. You should also inquire about the interactions between the decedent and others present, whether the decedent’s family was discussed at any time, including the day of the will ceremony, and whether the attorney prepared a family tree or took notes about the decedent’s relations with others. Attorney billing records and the decedent’s phone records and emails may also reflect the level of contact the attorney had with the decedent.

An advocate of the will’s admission to probate will attempt to argue that the decedent was lucid and rational at the time the will was made, and that the decedent communicated effectively, knew who he or she was talking to and responded appropriately. You should be prepared to challenge the generalized conclusions often asserted by the witnesses about the decedent’s appearance and capacity. You should also review the decedent’s medical records (request authorizations from the estate to obtain them) to determine if the decedent suffered from any cognitive diseases such as dementia and what kinds of medications the decedent may have been taking.

Be careful not to rely too heavily upon on a person’s old age or general diagnosis. Mere proof that the decedent suffered from old age, physical infirmity and chronic, progressive senile dementia when the will was executed is not necessarily inconsistent with testamentary capacity and does not alone preclude a finding thereof, as the appropriate inquiry is whether the decedent was lucid and rational at the time the will was made.

In addition to learning about the decedent’s age and diagnosis, you should inquire about the decedent with neighbors, relatives, and hospital staff to find out whether they observed the decedent at or around the time of the will’s execution and whether they have any stories to share regarding the decedent’s mental status.

The Possible Grounds to Object: Undue Execution

The first possible ground to object is undue execution. This objection focuses on the will’s technical non-compliance with the formalities set forth in EPTL § 3-2.1.

For example, the statute requires the decedent to sign the will at the end, declare to each of the attesting witnesses that the instrument is his will, and use at least two attesting witnesses. In reviewing the will and cross examining the attorney and witnesses, you should pay attention to the location of the decedent’s signature on the will, as well as any communications between the decedent and others present. Check to see if the decedent declared the document to be his or her last will and, if so, how. Check to see if the decedent signed the will in the witnesses’ presence or otherwise published his signature to the witnesses. Make sure the witnesses also signed the will and the dates of the signatures.

You should also review an administrative check list and other practice guides on estate administration. This will help you outline the various issues involved and help provide you with grounds to challenge the will, even if technically compliant with the statute.

These check lists and practice guides, for example, recommend that the client initial each page. They also caution practitioners against removing staples to make photocopies. Among other things, these circumstances may create doubt as to the will’s validity. One may conclude that the will does not contain the same pages as those executed by the decedent or that the decedent did not read its contents. These circumstances may obtain even greater weight as the case develops, especially depending on the specific cast of characters involved, such as the character of the beneficiaries, the drafting attorney and the witnesses.

Does the CPLR apply in Surrogate’s Court?

Every litigation attorney knows the CPLR. They learn it while they are in diapers in law school. Or, while studying for the bar exam. It generally governs the civil procedure in all courts of New York State (see CPLR 101). It is the equivalent of the FRCP for federal court.

What most litigation attorneys do not know is that the Surrogate’s Court has its own set of rules – the SCPA. It sets forth rules on jurisdiction, pleading, proceedings, etc. It is particularly informative on proceedings by and against fiduciaries. But the SCPA does not cover several procedural matters. It does not talk about summary judgment motion practice or general discovery matters. Where are those rules? Can you use the CPLR to fill the gaps?

This is the same question I asked myself the first time I started practicing in Surrogate’s Court. I wanted to make a motion for summary judgment and did not know if the SCPA permitted it. I then found my best friend, SCPA 102. This section allows you to rely on the CPLR in Surrogate’s Court.

But there is an exception “where other procedure is provided” by the SCPA. A similar rule is found in CPLR 101, which applies the CPLR to all civil matters “except where the procedure is regulated by inconsistent statute.”   

So, yes, you can generally use the CPLR to fill the gaps in the SCPA. But before you do, you will need to compare the CPLR with the SCPA to make sure the exception from SCPA 102 does not apply.

Practice Tip: You can search the case law to see if the courts have applied a specific provision from the CPLR in Surrogate’s Court. In your legal database, search for the particular provision (e.g., “CPLR 3212”) along with the phrase “Surrogate’s Court”.