A View from the Appellate Bench

May 17, 2011

Over the past several months, the Appellate courts have been actively engaged in determining issues pertinent to the field of trusts and estates and providing guidance to the Surrogate’s Court practitioner. The following is a synopsis of but a few of the decisions rendered.

Discovery Proceedings

In Matter of Delgatto, 2011 NY Slip Op 02667, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.), which denied the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment in a proceeding pursuant to SCPA 2103 to recover real property. The petitioner, who was the administrator cta of the estate, alleged that the decedent transferred the subject property to a revocable trust for the benefit of his caregiver, as a result of undue influence. The Court noted that several of the exhibits submitted by the petitioner were not in admissible form, i.e. unsigned and unattested transcripts, and thus could not be utilized in support of the motion. Further, the Court opined that the admissible evidence submitted by the petitioner failed to establish the petitioner’s prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.

The Elective Share

On April 26, 2011, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.), which granted the petitioner’s motion for summary judgment determining her right to an elective share of the decedent’s estate. In Matter of Atiram, 2011 NY Slip Op 03593, the Court found that the petitioner had established that she married the decedent in 1952 and that they remained legally married until the date of the decedent’s death. The Court concluded that the objectant had failed to raise any triable issue of fact as to whether the petitioner was disqualified on the grounds of abandonment, or equitably estopped from taking an elective share.

Compulsory Accounting

In Matter of Faggen, 2011 NY Slip Op 01413, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed an order of the Surrogate’s Court, New York Count (Webber, S.), which dismissed a petition for a compulsory accounting by the co-fiduciaries of the estate of the decedent. The record revealed that the decedent was the fiduciary of the estate of her late husband, who was the executor of the estate which was the subject of the proceeding. The Court held that a compulsory proceeding by fiduciaries thrice removed from the subject estate was not authorized by the provisions of SCPA 2207.

Proceeding Against a Fiduciary to Recover Property

Before the Appellate Division, Third Department in Matter of Curtis, 2011 NY Slip Op 027773, was an appeal from an order and decree of the Surrogate’s Court, Rensselaer County (Hummel, S.), which partially granted the petitioner’s application to compel the delivery of property from the fiduciary, and from a decree of that court which judicially settled the fiduciary’s accounting. The parties were the decedent’s daughters and co-executors of her estate. Prior to the decedent’s death, the decedent moved in with one of her daughters, who became her attorney-in-fact. Acting in this capacity, the daughter transferred assets of the decedent into her name.

After the decedent’s death, the decedent’s other daughter compelled her sister to account as attorney-in-fact and as co-executor of the estate. Both accountings were submitted and objections were filed. At the bench trial, the petitioner only pursued objections to the respondent’s accounting as attorney-in-fact, alleging that the transfers of assets by the decedent were the result of self -dealing and breach of fiduciary duty. The Surrogate’s Court disagreed, concluding that the respondent’s actions were undertaken with the express consent of the decedent, who was found competent at the time. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The Court held that while there was a presumption that the services provided by respondent’s husband in connection with the sale of certain realty were gratuitous in nature, that presumption was sufficiently rebutted by the testimony of the respondent and her husband that the decedent agreed to pay for her son-in-law’s services. To this extent, the Court deferred to the Surrogate’s assessment of the witnesses’ credibility, and expressly noted that the petitioner put forth no evidence to contradict the evidence presented.

Moreover, the Court found that the transfer of the decedent’s investment account to the respondent, and respondent’s inclusion as a mortgagee upon the sale of the decedent’s home constituted valid gifts, albeit made by the respondent as the decedent’s attorney-in-fact. The Court relied on the language of the power of attorney which authorized the making of the gifts in issue, as well as the testimony of the respondent who stated that the decedent was present when the subject transactions occurred.