Does SCPA 2110 Authorize Payment of a Beneficiary’s Legal Fees from the Estate?

“Under the general rule, attorneys’ fees and disbursements are incidents of litigation and the prevailing party may not collect them from the loser unless an award is authorized by agreement between the parties or by statute or court rule” (A. G. Ship Maintenance Corp. v Lezak, 69 NY2d 1, 5 [1986]).  This rule limits this court’s discretion and authority to award fees to a beneficiary payable from an estate (see Matter of Urbach, 252 AD2d 318, 321 [3d Dept 1999] [“all parties to a controversy, the victors and the vanquished, [must] pay their own counsel fees”]; see also Matter of Rodken, 2 AD3d 1008, 1009 [3d Dept 2003] [“An attorney may be compensated from estate funds only for services that benefit the estate”]; Matter of Baxter [Gaynor], 196 AD2d 186, 190 [4th Dept 1994]).  

To be compensated for legal fees from an estate, the “legal services [must] have been rendered for the benefit of the estate as a whole, resulting in the enlargement of all the shares of all the estate beneficiaries” (Matter of Burns, 126 AD2d 809, 812 [3d Dept 1987]; Matter of Wallace, 68 AD3d 679, 680 [1st Dept 2009]; Matter of Baxter [Gaynor], 196 AD2d at 190; see also Matter of Kinzler, 195 AD2d 464, 465 [1st Dept 1993]; Matter of Carver, 19 Misc 3d 1110[A], 1110A, 2008 NY Slip Op 50632[U], *3 [Sur Ct, Essex County 2008] [citing cases]).

On the other hand, “where the legal services rendered did not benefit the estate but benefitted only the individuals whom the attorney represented, the attorney must seek compensation from the clients individually” (Matter of Wallace, 68 AD3d at 680; see also Matter of Rodken, 2 AD3d at 1008; Matter of Baxter [Gaynor], 196 AD2d at 190).

Can a beneficiary recover the cost of attorney’s fees from estate litigation?

Generally, the fiduciary is entitled to recover the cost of attorney’s fees as a reasonable and necessary administration expense.  However, SCPA 2110 also authorizes the court to award attorney’s fees for legal services rendered to a beneficiary.  The court may direct payment directly from the estate generally or from certain funds in the hands of the fiduciary (SCPA 2110 [2]).

            In Matter of Rose BB., 35 AD3d 1044, 1045 (3d Dept 2006), for example, the court reiterated the well-recognized rule that “Surrogate’s Court may award counsel fees in situations where the misconduct of a fiduciary brings about the expense.”   There, the court affirmed the fee award, pointing to the other party’s “numerous instances of obstructing and prolonging an otherwise uncomplicated proceeding and his violation of his fiduciary duties.”  The record evidence also supported Surrogate’s Court’s finding that “with the exception of the ordinary administration of decedent’s estate, the proceedings … were necessitated by and attributable to … improper conduct.”

            Similarly, in Matter of Graves, 197 Misc 638, 639-640 (Sur Ct, Monroe County 1950), the court awarded fees out of the estate where, “without the performance of the services, the estate would have been charged additional commissions in the sum of $11,245.31.”  The court held that “where legal services have been rendered for the benefit of the estate which result in enlargement of the distributive shares of the estate beneficiaries, reasonable compensation should be granted out of the estate for such services” (id.).  “In such case the personal interests of the executors cause them and their counsel, in effect, to step aside and permit those whose interests are not inimical to the estate in general to protect the rights of the estate” (id.; see also Matter of Berg, 91 Misc 2d 939 [Sur Ct, New York County 1977] [awarding fees even though the court sustained only 3 of the objections and denied approximately $89,000 of the $100,000 surcharge requested]; Matter of Geller, 167 Misc 578, 578 [Sur Ct, Kings County 1938] [holding that the court may allow fees of an attorney for an interested party to be charged against the estate if the services were necessitated by the neglect of the fiduciary of his duties]).

            “The theory which justifies payment by the estate to the attorney of a beneficiary is that the attorney has represented the fiduciary who has defaulted in protecting or collecting the assets of the estate and, therefore, what would have been a proper charge for legal fees if the executor had acted, is a proper charge when the executor fails to act because of an adverse interest, disinclination or neglect” (Matter of Bellinger, 55 AD2d 448, 449-454 [4th Dept 1977]; see e.g. Matter of Berg, 91 Misc 2d at 939 [awarding fees even though the court sustained only 3 objections and denied approximately $89,000 of the $100,000 surcharge requested]; see also e.g. Matter of Del Monte, 37 AD2d 827, 827 [1st Dept 1971] [benefit to the estate for saving the estate disallowed commissions])

Does the Surrogate’s Court Have Jurisdiction Over Lifetime Trusts after the Grantor’s Death?

A decedent may create a trust during his or her lifetime.  What happens after the decedent dies?  Does the Surrogate’s Court have jurisdiction to compel a trustee to account to a beneficiary or determine other matters relating to the trust?   

      SCPA § 207 provides two separate grounds upon which the Surrogate’s Court may exercise jurisdiction over lifetime trusts after the grantor’s death.  Under SCPA § 207, the Surrogate’s Court “has jurisdiction over the estate of any lifetime trust which has assets in the state … or of which a trustee then acting resides in the state or, if other than a natural person, has its principal office in the state.” 

      It is therefore important to determine whether trust assets exist in New York and whether the trustee resides in New York.  If either one of these two grounds exist, SCPA § 207 provides the Surrogate’s Court with jurisdiction to entertain the proceeding.  See SCPA § 207(1); see e.g. Matter of Srozenski v Porcelli, 78 AD3d 1596 (4th Dept 2010); Matter of Jensen, 39 AD3d 1136 (3d Dept 2007).

Can I object to the estate paying the fiduciary’s legal fees?

There are several grounds to object to the estate paying the fiduciary’s legal fees.  One of the most basic objections is to challenge the reasonableness and necessity of the legal services performed (see Matter of Bradley, 128 Misc 2d 240, 241 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 1985] [reducing the attorney’s fee because “some of the work performed was totally unnecessary and the time spent on the balance excessive and unjustified”]; Matter of Bloomingdale, 172 Misc 218, 228 [Sur Ct, New York County 1939] [reducing the attorney’s fee for charges where most of the work of the attorney “involved was unnecessary and of no advantage to the estate and was a duplication of the work of the attorneys who had represented both the executor and executrix in prior years”]; see also JK Two LLC v Garber, 171 AD3d 496, 496-497 [1st Dept 2019] [reduction of the amount requested to eliminate work that was duplicative or was unnecessarily performed; holding that the determination of a reasonable attorney’s fee can take into account whether a party has engaged in conduct or taken positions resulting in delay or unnecessary litigation]; Matter of Rose BB., 35 AD3d 1044, 1045 [3d Dept 2006]). 

            This may be accomplished by reviewing the billing invoices and considering each time entry individually and collectively.  Also review the attorney affidavit discussing the services performed and consider the following:  the time and labor required, the difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill required to handle the problems presented; the lawyer’s experience, ability and reputation; the amount involved and benefit resulting to the client from the services; the customary fee charged by the Bar for similar services; the contingency or certainty of compensation; the results obtained; and the responsibility involved. 

            You may also challenge the fiduciary’s fee request based on the lack of supporting documentation.  The courts have reduced fees, for example, where the fee request is based upon generalized descriptions of the legal services rendered rather than contemporaneously recorded time charges for the work (see Matter of Phelan, 173 AD2d 621, 621-622 [2d Dept 1991]; Matter of Kelly, 187 AD2d 718, 718-719 [2d Dept 1992] [“We have repeatedly emphasized the importance of contemporaneously-maintained time records as a key component of an attorney’s affirmation of legal services”]; Matter of Quade, 121 AD2d 780, 782 [3d Dept 1986] [acknowledging the importance of time records and holding that the Surrogate’s Court is not obligated to accept unsupported testimony regarding the amount of time claimed to be compensable”]; 22 NYCRR § 207.45 [a] [requiring information regarding “the services rendered, in detail; the time spent; and the method or basis by which the requested compensation was determined”]). 

            Where the fiduciary is guilty of a breach of fiduciary duty or self-dealing, object.  In such cases, the attorney’s fee incurred in defending the illegal acts should not be charged to the estate (see Matter of Hildreth’s Will, 274 AD 611, 615-616 [2d Dept 1949], affd 301 NY 705 [1950]; Matter of Kenney, 64 Misc 3d 1232[A], 2019 NY Slip Op 51389[U], *9 [Sur Ct, Albany County 2019] [holding that inasmuch as the legal fees were incurred to defend petitioner for his wrongdoing, and the associated legal services benefitted him and not the estate, the legal fees were the responsibility of petitioner personally, and not the estate]; see also Matter of Newhoff, 107 AD2d 417, 423 [2d Dept 1985]; Chiesa v Keogh, 23 AD2d 562, 562 [2d Dept 1965] [“the services of counsel to represent an executor against a charge of self-dealing may not be charged to the estate”]).

            Similarly, consider objecting to the payment of attorney’s fees for legal services which were necessitated by the mistake, neglect, and/or misconduct of the fiduciary (see e.g. Matter of Newhoff, 107 AD2d at 423; Chiesa, 23 AD2d at 562 [“Although the erroneous computation of commissions by the executors was the result of an honest mistake, the beneficiaries of the estate should not be penalized by the payment of legal services for defending the executors with respect to such mistake”]; Matter of Hildreth, 274 App Div at 611; Matter of Terranova, NYLJ, July 11, 2012, at 25, col 5 [Sur Ct, Queens County] [denying fee application where found the need for the fiduciary to retain new counsel resulted solely from his own misconduct and holding that the trust should not have to pay for incoming counsel’s learning curve]; 8 Warren’s Heaton on Surrogate’s Court Practice § 106.04 [1] [a] [LexisNexis 2020]). 

            In addition, where the services benefitted only the fiduciary, you may object to them being recoverable against the estate (see Matter of Shambo, 169 AD3d 1201, 1207-1208 [3d Dept 2019] [“Given the minimal, if any, benefit to the estate derived from the years of legal representation …Surrogate’s Court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the payment of counsel fees from the estate”]; Matter of Rodken, 2 AD3d 1008, 1009 [3d Dept 2003] [“An attorney may be compensated from estate funds only for services that benefit the estate”]; Matter of Baxter, 196 AD2d 186, 186 [4th Dept 1994] [reversing attorney’s fee award where the legal services did not benefit the estate but only benefitted the individuals whom the attorney represented];  Matter of Klenk, 151 Misc 2d 863, 863 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County 1991], affd 204 AD2d 640 [2d Dept 1994] [holding that the attorneys who represented the co-fiduciaries in a contested accounting proceeding were not entitled to be paid from the estate since their services were rendered to support the co-fiduciaries in litigation regarding commissions and not to further the interest of the estate]; see also Matter of Gutchess, 117 AD2d 852, 855[3d Dept 1986] [reducing the attorney’s fee and holding that “the evidence does not support the conclusion that petitioner’s representation on [a particular claim] produced significantly favorable results”]; Matter of Schwartz, N.Y.L.J., Oct. 17, 2017, at 22, col. 5, 2017 NY Misc. LEXIS 3890 [Sur Ct, New York County] [holding that the attorney failed to show that the time purportedly spent by him benefited the estate in any way]).

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]).