HARD PROMISES – MULTI COURT CASES FOR TOM PETTY

In 1981, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the album Hard Promises, containing the single:  The Waiting.  In it, Tom sings, “oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now?  Don’t it feel like something from a dream?  Yeah, I’ve never known nothing quite like this”.

Tom’s lyrics uncannily describe an opposite reality of the evolution of what on its face appeared to have been careful and deliberative estate planning on his part.  The most recent turn in Tom’s estate plan is that his daughters (from marriage number one) have just filed their own lawsuit against his widow.  The fight continues for Tom’s valuable artistic catalogue.  We now have developing hard knuckles estate litigation.

It is increasingly common that a family’s estate litigation does not occur in a single court.  The trend is multiple legal disputes in more than one jurisdiction – sometimes at the same time.

In all of his work planning his estate, Tom likely never envisioned that his survivors would be fighting in court – let alone two courts at one time.  His wife Dana’s petition in probate court sought to have the court approve a professional manager to handle the catalogue of Tom’s legendary works.  In that probate court, his daughter Adria, filed another probate petition to wrestle control of the estate from Dana.  So, in Tom’s estate the initial battle line was formed by two applications for competing relief in the same court.  This is not all that uncommon.  Probate court is often confronted with dueling petitions competing for the same or similar relief.  The classic arguments are that one party or another is better suited or more fit to handle the fiduciary duties for the estate than another competing party.

Beyond dueling petitions (often termed “cross petitions”) in one court for the same relief, what prompts litigants in these cases to pursue more fights in various and different courts?  In many cases separate initiation of multiple suits by the same parties are driven by the nature of the relief available in a particular court.  In Tom’s case his daughters started their separate lawsuit in a state court in California.  That is not atypical in more complicated or asset laden estate disputes where the claims are directed by persons, seeking to gain benefit from the estate, against individuals who stand in their way or who have themselves allegedly benefitted to the detriment of the other party. 

While the Surrogate’s Court in New York has jurisdiction over the handling of the estate and many related proceedings, many estate disputes spawn and emanate satellite litigation in New York State Supreme Court.  Litigants start proceedings in that forum for injunctive (restraining orders) and other relief, including money damages.  Some litigants sue the other party for breach of a fiduciary duty in the other forum or sue to recover items of property (replevin) or money (conversion).  Sometimes the state court is called upon to address alleged breaches of contract or matters pertaining to administration of trusts related to the decedent’s estate.

In Tom’s case the claims seem to be less esoteric and more direct.  His daughters claim that his widow deprived them of their role in “equal participation” in determining how his works are released.  In short, their argument is that this phrase means that the two of them have a majority vote representing two thirds of the three ladies handling the decisions. 

That position and the argument is the same as that which they advanced in the probate court dispute.  What motivates advancing the same argument in another court?  Perhaps it is that his daughters are actually forum or judge shopping.  It could be that they sense that the probate court forum favors Dana.  Their logic may not be that far off.  It is often asserted that a probate or Surrogate’s Court is a friendly forum for the estate and the individuals designated by the decedent to handle the estate.  The thinking is that the probate court is overly protective of the estate and the decedent’s nominated fiduciary – often bending over backwards in deferential accommodation to the alleged talismanic “decedent’s intent”.  It is also possible that the daughters, after having filed their competing petition in the probate court, sense an unfavorable reception or perhaps even an imminent defeat.  In addition, the daughters have now upped the ante by seeking financial damages ($5.0M) from Dana in the state court case.  That claim is based on the contention that Dana usurped estate assets to the detriment of the daughters.

The daughters also made the classic move to justify activity in state court, getting around the probate court, by making Tom Petty Unlimited the plaintiff in the case they just started.  It is an LLC which was formed in March of 2018, to manage the assets after Tom’s death.  As we continue to learn more, it seems that this entity controls Tom’s rights as a recording artist and his memorabilia. In the suit the claim is advanced that Tom’s widow created another company, Tom Petty Legacy, to usurp the other LLC’s business and misappropriate its assets.

Tom is a classic rocker and despite his death his work is a staple for classic rock outlets.  It is widely enjoyed and listened to every day.  While his music plays, it certainly is becoming more apparent that his estate plan will unfold in the courts with the ultimate decisions pertinent to management and control being made by the courts rather than his family.

Excluding A Parent From Sharing In A Child’s Estate- Back Again!

In our first writing on this subject we committed to following Matter of Martirano, 2019 NY App Div LEXIS 3716 (3d Dept 2019), if it made its way to the Appellate Division. In a nine page Memorandum and Order dated May 9, 2019, the Third Department reversed the Surrogate. (Matter of Martirano, 2019 NY App Div LEXIS 3716 [3d Dept 2019]).

The Appellate Division revisited the Surrogate’s determination which granted the mother’s motion for summary judgment dismissing her son Michael’s petition and his objections to probate of her son Christopher’s will. We will not recite the facts again, except to the extent that the Appellate Division has mentioned more facts than what we learned from the decision below.

The will in question was executed three days before the decedent’s death. He left the bulk of his estate to Nikko Cruz and Dennis Helliwell, his friends and employees of his cleaning business. Unfortunately for them, they also witnessed the will and in a prior determination the Surrogate determined that the dispositions to them were void and that the dispositions were to pass through intestacy.

We also learn from the Appellate Division’s order that decedent’s will named Helliwell as executor; however due to a prior felony conviction, he was disqualified and Cruz was appointed as the named alternate executor. Later the court considered an application by decedent’s brother to revoke preliminary letters granted to Cruz, which, after a hearing, resulted in the court imposing restrictions on Cruz’s authority.

In the instant posture, the Surrogate had pending a motion for summary judgment made by the decedent’s mother seeking to dismiss the probate petition filed by her son Michael, together with a cross motion for summary judgment made by her son Michael on his petition. The determination was that the son failed to meet his burden demonstrating that their mother had abandoned and/or failed to provide for the decedent, and the court granted the mother’s motion dismissing the son’s petition. The son appealed.

Although the Appellate Division found no error with the ruling of the Surrogate’s Court as to the admissibility of the Catholic Charities records, it reversed the Surrogate finding that neither the mother nor the brother met their prima facie burden of establishing, as a matter of law, their entitlement to summary judgment on the issue of whether the mother had voluntarily abandoned decedent or failed to provide for him.

On the ground of alleged abandonment, the court found that although the mother claimed that she never intended to voluntarily abandon decedent, the court found that there is a triable issue of fact as to whether her efforts to maintain a relationship with decedent during his childhood were sufficient to fulfill the natural and legal obligations of training, care and guidance owed by a parent to a child.

On the ground of alleged lack of financial support, the court likewise found a question of fact as to whether the mother had the financial means available to provide for the decedent and failed to do so.

What struck us on reading the determination of the Surrogate below was that the parent had prevailed where many parents in these cases do not. Why did the Appellate Division reverse?

First, on the issue of abandonment, it is not enough for the parent to simply allege an intention never to voluntarily abandon the decedent. The stated intention must be corroborated by competent proof. The parent must set forth her efforts to maintain the relationship with the decedent in detail, with factual specificity, and offer precise dates. Here, the mother’s showing was criticized by the Appellate Division for her inability to aver specific facts. For example, the court found numerous inconsistencies in her deposition and an affidavit as to dates. Further, the court was troubled by her inability to state how many times she had visited the decedent over a period of about 8 years. As well, the court did not favor her inability to provide details as to the extent and quality of her visitations. Additionally, it found contradictions in her averments of visitations that were not corroborated by her son.

We see this as instructional. A parent in this position would be well advised to pursue production of telephone records, bills, credit card statements, travel tickets and perhaps available receipts for expenses. Documentary evidence that demonstrates that an effort, even if modest or small by general standards will help. If the child intermittently resides with the parent, records pertinent to health, school or childcare could be produced. Records from foster care or an agency can help too. Another avenue toward developing this proof would be production of affidavits from other witnesses corroborating interaction between the parent and child. Where the parent has poor or no records, counsel should immediately initiate third party discovery utilizing subpoenas and depositions in order to assemble the required proof either to move or survive a motion for summary judgment.

The court found a question of fact on the issue of financial support as well. The deficiency with her proof on the motion was that she failed to put sufficient evidence into the record with respect to the “status of her finances”. Apparently, she affirmatively demonstrated to the court that she had given birth to four children before the age of 21 and received public assistance for a time. Perhaps she mistakenly concluded that this proof was sufficient and that the court would simply presume her inability if she characterized her position as impoverished. It appears that in her deposition she conceded that while decedent was in foster care for 14 years, she did not provide for him other than with unspecified cash gifts. She also conceded that had she obtained custody of him she would have been able to provide for him because “[they] always made due”. The court seemed troubled more by the fact that she offered no evidence of her employment or ability to work coupled with an admitted lack of public assistance for a period of time where her husband was employed and they adequately provide for their other children and covered other expenses including travel costs to visit family.

Clearly, the Appellate Division rejected the characterization of finances approach here. The decision makes apparent that in order to succeed the parent is well advised to lay out her financial condition as if under a microscope. It is not sufficient to address income or expenses alone. The parent had better offer competent proof demonstrating income, expenses, and assets and address financial opportunities or abilities with detail. Clearly the court is examining the alleged lack of financial means at an overall level as well as in particular with respect to the individual parent’s own personal circumstances.

Summary Judgment in a Contested Accounting Proceeding – Disposing of Meritless Objections.

Courts often use the term “punctilio of honor” to describe the high level of care and attention required of a fiduciary. The fiduciary must always act cautiously and carefully. But even the most careful fiduciary may still encounter an objection to her actions. There may be a disgruntled family member looking to harass the fiduciary or a party looking to squeeze the estate for some extra cash. Whatever the motive behind the objection, the “punctilio of honor” standard creates a low burden for a party to contest the account. Thankfully, the fiduciary may move for summary judgment to dismiss meritless objections in a contested accounting proceeding.

The summary judgment standard is the same as in any other case. The standard is found in CPLR 3212 and outlined in Zuckerman. First, the fiduciary must establish her defense sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law to direct judgment in her favor, and she must do so by tendering evidentiary proof in admissible form (see CPLR 3212 [b]; Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562 [1980]). If the fiduciary meets this burden, the burden shifts to the opposing party to show facts sufficient to require a trial of any issue of fact (see CPLR 3212 [b]; see Zuckerman, 49 NY2d at 562).

In terms of practice, the fiduciary satisfies her initial burden by showing that the account is complete and accurate (see Matter of Assimakopoulos, 2017 NY Slip Op 32821[U] [Sur Ct, New York County 2017]). This is often done by submitting the account with an affidavit attesting to its accuracy (id.; see Estate of Curtis, 16 AD3d 725 [3d Dept 2005]). The fiduciary should therefore submit the pleadings, the account, and the affidavit in support of the account. To avoid any doubt, the fiduciary should also submit additional affidavits addressing each specific objection to the account and tender sworn testimony and other exhibits in support of her position. This will provide the fiduciary with the best chance of success on the motion.

If the fiduciary meets her initial burden, the objectant will have to tender admissible evidence to establish that the amounts set forth in the account are inaccurate or incomplete (Estate of Curtis, 16 AD3d at 726; Matter of Assimakopoulos, 2017 NY Slip Op 32821[U] [Sur Ct, New York County 2017]). This procedure smokes out the weak objections from the strong ones and requires the objectant to prove that each objection is strong enough to justify conducting a trial.

As part of the motion strategy, the fiduciary should always serve the motion with enough notice to permit her to demand that answering papers be served at least a week before the return date. This will provide the fiduciary with a chance to review the answering papers and provide a reply. The fiduciary’s reply should highlight the lack of evidentiary support behind the objections and the golden rule set forth in CPLR 3212 and Zuckerman that “mere conclusions, expressions of hope or unsubstantiated allegations or assertions are insufficient” for an objectant to withstand dismissal (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY 2d at 562).

Goodbye, objections. Goodbye.

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

How the “Sole Benefit” Rule Frustrates Supplemental Needs Trusts

Floyd Brown was charged with murder in 1993. Found incompetent to stand trial, he was sentenced to a psychiatric institution. In 2007, after fourteen years of confinement, he was exonerated. The appellate judge held that the lone piece of evidence, an elaborate six-page confession, was entirely too sophisticated for Mr. Brown to have dictated. Mr. Brown is intellectually disabled; he has an IQ of less than sixty and the mental capacity of a seven-year old child.  

Following his release, Mr. Brown was awarded approximately nine million dollars for his wrongful confinement. The net settlement was put into a supplemental needs trust (“SNT”), a special kind of trust available for people with disabilities which allows the beneficiary to exclude the trust corpus from asset calculation when applying or recertifying for means-tested government programs. The trust was meant to enhance his quality of life. Yet, with millions of dollars accruing interest, Mr. Brown’s simple request for a bouquet of flowers for his mother’s grave was denied, and he was living below the poverty line. 

Why? Because the flowers and other items Mr. Brown requested were not strictly for his benefit. According to the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) interpretation of the statutory language, which established SNTs, the trust must be established for the “sole benefit” of the beneficiary.

Likewise, until very recently, the SSA required that all trust disbursements be made for the “sole benefit” of the beneficiary. On April 30, 2018, the SSA relaxed its interpretation of the “sole benefit” rule in limited circumstances: trust disbursements made to third-parties for certain goods or services may now be for the “primary benefit” of the beneficiary.

However, outside of this limited exception, any other disbursement that violates this stringent rule ensures that the beneficiary will lose eligibility for essential government benefit programs, including Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).

Although Mr. Brown had millions of dollars, losing eligibility for public benefits meant the trust would likely be expended in a short time to provide medical care and necessities, and to repay state and federal programs for previous expenditures related to his cost of care.

To download the rest of the article, click here.

By: ELIZABETH A. WEIKEL

Ms. Weikel is a JD Candidate at Quinnipiac University School of Law.  She will be an associate here at Tabner, Ryan, & Keniry LLP in the late summer.

Damn the Torpedoes (40 Years Later) and Full Moon Fever (30 Years Later)

When Tom Petty tragically died of a drug overdose in 2017, he left a wife, Dana York Petty, and two daughters from his first marriage, Adria and Annakim. He also left a catalogue of music that his fans crave for, including the anticipated album “Wildflowers – All The Rest”, which was to feature unreleased tracks from the original “Wildflowers” recording session. The release was intended to coincide with the 25th year anniversary of the release of the Wildflowers album on November 1, 1994.

Tom Petty appears to have engaged in some substantial estate planning over the years. His trust named his second wife Dana as his sole successor trustee. Since his death, she served as trustee. His trust directed that Dana was empowered and directed to “create a California limited liability company (or such other entity as the Trustee deems appropriate) … to hold [Tom’s] Artistic Property”.

Tom gave Dana broad discretion in creating the entity, the execution of an operating agreement and establishing a governance structure. Tom provided only one caveat: that Dana, Adria and Annakim “shall be entitled to participate equally in management”.

The estate plan seems solid and simple enough. His fans eagerly await each release of subsequent Tom Petty compilations. Since his death in October of 2017, two complications have been released. Now the release intended for this coming November is in jeopardy and at risk and it seems that an unraveling of the planning of Tom’s estate is the heart of the problems.

The court filings and other reports indicate that Adria has apparently changed her mind on key decisions, including her stated intention to delete “and the Heartbreakers” off the artist name on one of the prior complications. She emailed two founding members of the Heartbreakers on that subject and stated: “what I don’t have the temperament for is having my entire life raped. Being disparaged. My dad being disgraced. And being surrounded by selfish, unreliable people and drug addicts.” Adria has stated an intention to delay and postpone release of “Wildflowers” and has gone further, stating to record executives that she will be taking over control of the estate in short order.

It all seemed so clear when Tom provided his lawyers with his instructions and they presumably wrote them into the documents correctly and clearly. Certainly there was no room for interpretation or ambiguity. Three people shall be entitled to participate equally in management.

According to Adria and Annakim, participation equally means just that. Each person has one vote in the management decision making. Adria has texted that all decisions shall be “majority rule” and that it will be smoothly run as a result. They argue that this was Tom’s intention and his words were clear.

On the other hand, Dana argues that Tom did not intend to give his daughters the right to rule by majority and he did not intend to disenfranchise Dana entirely. She argues in her petition filed with the court that “equal participation in management can only be ensured by requiring consensus for significant decisions; otherwise the opportunity of the majority – Tom’s daughters from his marriage to Jane- to abuse and exclude [Dana’s] minority position, which will inevitably lead to endless litigation, would be a virtual certainty”.

What happened here? Did the drafting attorney fail to consider the family dynamic of children from a prior marriage managing a business with the second spouse?

From a litigation standpoint, the LLC concept should be clearly defined in order to reduce the chances of what seems to be a highly likely dispute in a case like this. Second spouses and children from a first marriage are harbingers of estate litigation. Knowing this, the drafter could have specifically designated the second spouse and the two children from the prior marriage as the co-managers of the LLC and that each manager has one vote – if that was the intention. Otherwise, if the creator of the trust intended operations to be in perfect harmony, he could have said so. He could have specified that management decisions must be unanimous. While that seems a set up for paralysis, it could have been his intent that his highly valuable and substantial artistry collection be managed and operated in a holistic and collaborative fashion.

This type of estate plan could have also added a tie breaker and deadlock breaker provision. If desired, the creator of this type of plan could have included a dispute resolution provision with requirement first for a friendly mediation facilitated by a third party neutral and then for arbitration.

Can a Felon Serve As A Fiduciary?

SCPA § 707 sets forth a list of ineligibles – those persons automatically disqualified from serving as a fiduciary in Surrogate’s Court. The statute is clear: felons cannot serve. It does not matter when the felony occurred, the age of the offender at the time, or the type of crime committed. All felons have been branded as unsuitable to manage the affairs of others in Surrogate’s Court.

Notwithstanding the prohibition, felons have argued that exceptions exist and that a certificate of relief from disabilities renders them eligible. This is based on language in the Correction Law providing that a certificate may relieve a felon from “any forfeiture or disability … automatically imposed by law by reason of [the] conviction” (Correction Law § 701 [1]). This statute generally trumps “any other provision of law” to prevent the “automatic forfeiture of any license…, permit, employment, or franchise, including the right to register for or vote at an election, or automatic forfeiture of any other right or privilege” (Correction Law § 701 [1]).

Despite this language, the Surrogate in Matter of McNair was not convinced. There, the court concluded that a certificate does not alter the mandate of SCPA 707. According to the court, the Correction Law “merely affords [a felon] the privilege of obtaining gainful employment” and that a felon “remains ineligible to hold public office, a position for which society’s trust is rightfully expected” (Matter of McNair, 16 Misc 3d 1102[A], 2007 NY Slip Op 51223[U] [Sur Ct, Dutchess County 2007]).

The conclusion reached in the McNair case appears to be a minority view. In Matter of Pullman, for example, the Second Department held that the certificate indeed removes the automatic disqualification (89 AD2d 608 [1982]; Matter of Bashwinger, 92 Misc 2d 716 [Sur Ct, Albany County 1978]; see also Matter of Smith, 14 Misc 3d 1232[A] [Sur Ct, Bronx County 2007]).

Even these cases, however, recognize that a court may still deny the appointment of a felon in its discretion, and that a certificate does not preclude the court from denying the appointment under SCPA 707 (1) (e), which renders persons ineligible for other reasons, including dishonesty (see Matter of Pullman, 89 AD2d at 608; see also Correction Law § 701 [3] [permitting any judicial authority from relying upon the conviction as the basis for the exercise of its discretionary power to suspend, revoke, refuse to issue or refuse to renew any license, permit or other authority or privilege]).

The Surrogate in the McNair case, for example, relied on SCPA 707 (1) (e) as an alternative basis for its decision. There, the felon was a former attorney who had been convicted of grand larceny in the third degree and disbarred. The court found persuasive that at least two prior estates had allegedly suffered financial losses as a result of the felon’s dishonesty.
Similarly, in the Pullman case, the court concluded that the felon was ineligible as a “dishonest” person despite the certificate. He was indebted to the estate, had exercised undue influence over the decedent and commingled trust funds in another case, and had no less than 13 unsatisfied judgments against him.

So, to answer the question posed above – yes, convicted felons may serve as fiduciaries, but only the honest ones.

How To Prepare For a 1404- Subscribing Witnesses

The order of the witnesses’ testimony is ordinarily not known prior to the hearing. Thus, the subscribing witness is well advised to prepare for his testimony in advance of the hearing. When the hearing is scheduled, the witness should be provided with a copy of the self-proving affidavit and a copy of the will. The witness should review them in advance. In many cases subscribing witnesses are called upon to testify first. Often this is based upon the expectation that the testimony will be brief in contrast with that of the supervising attorney. In any event, the witness should be told that he will not be permitted to remain in the courtroom and listen to other witnesses testify, as the court will likely exclude the subsequent witnesses from the courtroom.
Most witnesses participate willingly as volunteers, knowing it is part of the lawyer’s duty to the decedent. Most do not retain counsel, nor do they require counsel in the ordinary case. A noncooperative witness is subject to subpoena.
A meeting should be scheduled for the witness with counsel for the proponent who will conduct the examination in court. The witness should be told of the significance of the examination and the formality of the matter before the court. The witness should be prepared to review any interactions with the decedent prior to the will execution. Attention should be directed to whether the decedent’s condition changed over time. All interactions with the decedent leading up to the will signing should be reviewed. Equally, if the witness continued to have contact with the decedent after the signing that should be explored as well. The witness should be asked if he maintained any notes independent of the law firm files. Further, the witness should be asked at the outset if there are documents that would refresh his recollection. In most cases it makes sense to provide them to the witness as they are ordinarily in the law firm’s file, possession or control.
It is not uncommon for the meeting with the witness to start with the witness professing to have no recollection of the signing. While that can be problematic in some cases, often use of the law firm diary or calendar together with time and billing entries can successfully rehabilitate a lagging memory. The file can be reviewed to refresh a recollection.
The statutory elements of due execution of the will should be considered and reviewed in detail with the witness. Special attention should be afforded to what the witness may have observed relative to the supervising attorney’s custom and practice in will executions. Many lawyers utilize a checklist and often state the identical words at every will signing that they supervise. The witness’ recollection of this can be powerful in defeating a potential objection alleging lack of due execution. It is critical that the witness be prepared to cover the exact elements required by the statute in order to prove due execution.
After covering due execution of the will, the witness’ attention should be directed to the subject matter of other potential objections in the case. Capacity of the decedent must be covered in all cases, even if in a cursory manner. The witness should be asked to describe the decedent’s condition at the time of the signing. The witness should become prepared to answer in his own words why the decedent was of sound mind and memory at the time that the will was signed. That testimony can often be the crux of defeating an objection alleging lack of capacity.
Rather than allowing the witness to opt out with a series of answers professing not to know or remember, the witness should be directed to state what he observed – both with his eyes and his ears. Often the most probative facts establishing capacity seemingly are the most innocuous and inconsequential at the time (e.g. where the decedent planned to go next after the signing or where she had been, who accompanied her to the meeting, sports, politics, heath, or the weather to name a few). It can be very helpful to have the witness relate a conversation that he had with the witness at the time of the signing.
The most important aspect of the examination is that part pertaining to what happened and what was said at the time that the will was signed. In order to ward off potential objections that testimony ideally should be strong and fact specific. The witness must be asked questions to eliminate all doubts. The witness should be asked to describe why (the reasons) he concluded that the decedent was free from undue influence at the time of the signing. This can be done by addressing who was present and what was said. Where a relative, friend or other person not associated with the law firm is present, the witness must take care to state the facts on which he relied in concluding that the decedent was free of undue influence.
The potential objection based upon fraud is difficult to prove. In any event the witness should be prepared to testify that no person made any false statements on which it appeared the decedent relied causing him to sign the will.
It is advisable to prepare the witness for the cross examination by allaying concerns. For example, the witness should be told that many cross examiners inquire about the decedent’s clothing, attire, personal appearance, hygiene and similar subjects. The witness should be directed to do his best to patiently and truthfully answer all the questions. The witness should be directed to be polite and professional with the cross-examining attorney no matter how disrespectful or silly the questions may seem.
The witness should also be reminded that the cross examiner may seek to exploit divergence in recollections and testimony. Thus, while that effort may be unnerving for the witness, he should do his best based upon his recollection and the documents.
It is not uncommon for the cross examiner to try to cast doubt. The witness should be prepared for this approach and in the appropriate instance rebut the effort with facts.