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

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.

Who Will Take Care of Your Pet? A Pet Trust is the Answer

People love their pets. I know from my own experience that my dog Kirby is a very important member of my family. I believe most pet parents feel the same way. What happens when you die, and you leave your poor pet all alone? Are you confident that someone will step in and care for him and love him? Well, unless you have included a pet trust in your estate planning, there is no guarantee that he will be taken care of after you are gone. It is not unreasonable to believe that your pet may outlive you. Some animals have a long life span. For example, a tortoise’s average life span is 75 years, a parrot’s average life span is 22 years, and a horse’s average life span is 18 years.

It may be hard for an animal lover to fathom, but New York law considers animals as personal property. Because they are property, you cannot leave money directly to your pet through a will. However, New York’s Estates, Powers and Trust Law § 7-8.1 was specifically designed to allow a pet owner to set up a trust for the care of a pet. Under this statute, the pet becomes a beneficiary of a trust and a legally visible being who can claim equitable title in the income and assets of the trust. Of course, your pet cannot assert his rights on his own or hire an attorney, therefore the law allows the pet parent to designate an individual to enforce the trust, or if no one is designated, the court is authorized to appoint someone to enforce the trust.

A pet trust is a contract between the pet owner and a trustee. The pet owner agrees to fund the trust and specify its terms, and the trustee agrees to carry out those terms. Those terms may include:

• designating the animal(s) who are the beneficiaries of the trust, including a detailed description of the pet(s) – such as photos, microchips, and even DNA samples;
• designating a custodian to physically care for your pet;
• designating the trustee and successor trustee;
• designating an enforcer who can bring the custodian or trustee to court to force him to carry out the terms of the trust for the benefit of the pets;
• detailed instructions for the care of the pet, such as,
• name of the veterinarian to care for the pet
• any medical conditions or allergies
• specify in detail the standard of living and care to be given to your pet
 brand name of pet food and snacks
 grooming instructions
 boarding instructions;
• instructions for the final disposition of your pet (for example, burial or cremation); and
• how the unexpended trust property is to be distributed after the death of the pet.

Under the statute, the trust will terminate only when all the animal beneficiaries of the trust are no longer alive. This provision creates an exception to the rule against perpetuities which would have limited the life of the pet trust to 21 years. Upon termination of the trust, the trustee will be required to transfer the unexpended trust property as directed in the trust.

Now, pet parents can be assured that their pets are going to be well cared for even after they are gone by setting up a pet trust.

Contributed by Jacque K. Vincent, J.D.

Trust Funds for Pets: It’s Not All Doggie Bones and Biscuits

Estate and trust litigation can occur for a variety of reasons. A trust fund dog named ‘Winnie the Pooh’ experienced this first hand. There, the trust manager and the pet’s new caretaking fought over the frequency and amount of money distributed from the trust.

The dog’s owner had set up a trust for $100,000 for the dog with the remainder for an animal hospital. The dog’s caretaker reportedly ended up having to sue the estate’s executor after he allegedly failed to make trust payments for the dog’s care. The caretaker further alleged that the executor had refused to provide records relating to the trust and the pet’s medical history, and that the executor was favoring the remainder beneficiary. The executor denied the allegations and blamed the caretaker for the confusion.

The merits of a case like this will depend largely on the fiduciary’s legal obligations under the law and the specific terms of the trust. Of importance would be the degree of discretion afforded to the trustee in the trust instrument for making payments. The parties should retain records to support their position, including copies of letters, payments, receipts, demands, refusals, and bank records. Relying on ‘he said, she said’ evidence will end up costing both sides a lot in legal fees, and it may even significantly reduce the trust if the judge awards attorney’s fees out of it.

Family members or remainder beneficiaries may also attempt to challenge a pet trust that leaves a large sum of money to a pet. Leona Helmsley left twelve million dollars in trust to her “beloved Maltese, Trouble.” The court held that twelve million dollars was excessive and reduced the amount to only two million dollars.

Another owner reportedly left $4,761,346 in trust for two cats (see Matter of Abels, 44 Misc 3d 485 [Sur Ct, Westchester County 2014]). The executor of the will argued that based on the cats’ life expectancy and estimated costs, the amount of the trust should be reduced to $440,000. The executor also argued that by selling the mansion and relocating the cats to a smaller residence, the tax liability could be reduced and the charities could receive more.

The judge denied the executor’s request to reduce the trust. The judge held that the decedent’s intent was clear and should be followed. The judge reasoned that the pet owner wanted the cats to live in the house they were comfortable in and made specific arrangements for this.  The judge concluded that it was not the court’s place to “rewrite the decedent’s will” and to give more to the charities than the decedent intended. 

Luckily, justice prevailed for these cats. They were able to stay in their mansion and enjoy their lives in luxury.