Do I Need to Pay a Bequest if the Beneficiary Owes the Estate Money?

A fiduciary has a legal obligation to make distributions to the beneficiaries of the estate. But what happens when a beneficiary owes the estate money? Does the law permit the fiduciary to offset the bequest with the debt? Or does the fiduciary have to first make a distribution and then sue the same beneficiary to recover the funds to pay the debt?

As a practical matter, one would assume that an offset is permitted. However, at first blush, the EPTL and SCPA do not appear to address the issue. They provide a beneficiary with the right to compel payment. But they do not expressly provide that a fiduciary may assert defenses to payment (see EPTL § 11-1.5; SCPA § 2102 [4] [“A proceeding may be commenced to require a fiduciary … to deliver a specific bequest or property to a person entitled thereto or to pay a legacy…”]). The only defense in the statute appears to be the timing of the payment: under EPTL § 11-1.5(c), a beneficiary generally must wait at least seven months from a fiduciary’s appointment before demanding payment.

The procedural rules of the SCPA and CPLR nevertheless permit a fiduciary to file an answer and assert defenses when the beneficiary commences a proceeding to compel payment. The fiduciary therefore has an opportunity to explain to the court why the legacy a or distributive share should not be paid in whole or in part (see 6 Warren’s Heaton on Surrogate’s Court Practice § 75.03 [LexisNexis 2019]).

In the answer, the fiduciary should therefore explain that the beneficiary owes the debt and assert this as a defense to payment. This is often referred to as the right to equitable retainer and lien (see Matter of Van Nostrand, 177 Misc 1, 7 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1941] [placing equitable lien upon the beneficial interest of a trustee/beneficiary who had embezzled trust property]; Matter of James, 149 Misc 135, 135-138 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1933]).

This defense is well settled under the case law and rests on sound principles of equity (see Matter of Eaton, 282 App Div 32, 34 [3d Dept 1953]). It is based on “a fundamental equitable principle of surrogate law that no beneficiary may claim any distributive rights from an estate until he has satisfied all of his obligations to it” (Matter of Van Nostrand, 177 Misc at 7; Matter of James, 149 Misc at 135-138 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1933]; Matter of Flint, 120 Misc 230, 232 [Sur Ct, Westchester County 1923], affd 206 App Div 778 [2d Dept 1923]; Matter of Foster, 15 Misc 175, 177 [Sur Ct, Orange County 1895] [holding that a debt is considered an asset of the estate in the hands of the legatee and a satisfaction of the legacy to the extent of the debt]).

Do You Trust Your Brother?

The names are different, but the facts are often the same. Unfortunately, more often than not, the outcome is also the same. The outcome does not have to be the same in every case. The maxim: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure is sadly most fitting.

Illness / Rely on family

Floyd W. Fisher was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in July 2015. Shortly after his diagnosis Floyd named his brother Larry Duane Fisher as his agent under a durable power of attorney. This document, which is very common, gave Larry complete control over his brother’s affairs. Presumably this was a sound decision. Larry had been a deputy for the Kit Carson Sheriff’s office. Larry told Floyd’s daughter not to worry and promised her that when her father died, he would handle the estate and file a probate case with the court. Certainly, the family was relieved that Floyd’s affairs would be handled in a competent trustworthy manner by a family member with a law enforcement background.

Death / Suspicion

Later that year in December, Floyd died. With no probate having been filed by Larry, Floyd’s daughter petitioned the court to handle his estate. After her appointment she found out the truth.

The truth

Larry stole from his deceased brother’s estate. He drained a bank account with more than $200,000, established for his brother’s care and treatment, down to $13.59.

He sold a piece of real property that had been in his brother’s wife’s family for generations to obtain funds for Floyd’s care. Almost $200,000 from that sale was earmarked for “the sole purpose of Floyd’s care and benefit and to pay his medical bills”. Larry changed the address on the account to his home and began to transfer the funds to several different accounts, including one for his teenage son.

Larry bought a Toyota truck for about $45,000 and purchased multiple guns with his brother’s money.

The outcome

In the end, the total amount spent from the account on Floyd’s care was $13,192.15, which included the cost of his funeral, $4,870.

In May 2017, Floyd’s daughter filed a criminal complaint against her uncle Larry. On December 6, 2018, Larry was found guilty by a jury in Denver Colorado of felony theft.

While the outcome may be just, it is unfair to the victims and leaves the family of the decedent with no real remedy if they cannot cover the assets.

What can be done to prevent this?

Prevention

The outlook and suggestions presented on prevention is based upon experience in litigation of this nature.

Retain a respected and experienced lawyer knowledgeable in the planning practice area. Great resources for referrals to those professionals are other lawyers, CPA’s, bankers and asset or investment advisors.

Do not make the decision to grant a power of attorney to anyone lightly – including family and particularly, “friends”. In many instances, friends and family are unsuitable agents due to conflicts, family animosity, jealousy and insatiable temptation. Professional advice concerning suitability of the intended agent is highly beneficial and can prevent a bad outcome. Using a professional can allow for a background check, credit check or other appropriate inquiry into the proposed agent – before the documents are signed.

Consider appointment of a disinterested person. Family members often are willing to serve for free. Why? Indeed, in many instances the principal does get what he pays for. When family members or friends offer to serve for free the professed altruism must be critically assessed. An agent can be compensated by the principal. Fair, but nevertheless relatively modest compensation has the potential to expand the class of persons suitable to serve as an agent.

Consider utilizing more than one person. New York law allows for more than one agent to be nominated and for the principal to decline to allow them to act separately. At the outset two individuals may be appointed to act together. Consider checks and balances and perhaps a monitor to review and supervise the actions of the agent. Any agent suitable for consideration for appointment must be a person absolutely trusted.

Split the duties among a small number of trusted people or create some redundancy so that more than one person has knowledge of the finances and the transactions as they occur. An easy measure that affords a lot of potential protection is requiring that more than one account statement be issued each month and that they be mailed to different persons. For example, the agent and the principal’s accountant.

Do not appoint a person susceptible to creditors, predators, greed or temptation.

Avoid new “friends” who are merely acquaintances. For example, a new home health aide, handyperson or other similar service provider or helper.

Involve professionals. Consider utilization of a banker, lawyer, CPA or other similar professionals who are regulated, supervised or licensed, and often insured.

Another option to consider is a springing power of attorney instead of a present grant of total control. The benefit of this technique is that the power is not granted to the agent until the happening of an event – often a medical or capacity related decline.

Conclusion

With counsel, Floyd might have been better advised to establish a trust. There was no indication that he lacked the capacity to do so. He certainly had sufficient assets to justify the effort and the work. A trust for his benefit during his life might well have prevented all of the harm. He could have nominated a local bank to act as the trustee during his life. This approach would have almost certainly prevented the outcome here.