Court of Appeals: Fiduciary’s Legal Fees to be Equitably Allocated among Beneficiaries
July 12, 2010
In Matter of Hyde, 2010 NY Slip Op 05676, decided June 29, 2010, the Court of Appeals held that SCPA 2110 gives Surrogate’s Courts discretion to determine the allocation of attorneys fees paid from the trust or estate to the fiduciary in defending against objections, assuming the fiduciary’s conduct was not deemed so egregious as to require him to be individually responsible for payment.
The facts in Hyde are summarized in detail in a prior post that addressed the Appellate Division’s decision, which has now been modified by the high court. In short, the beneficiaries who decided not to interpose objections to the trustees’ accountings sought an order directing that the trustees’ legal fees in defending against the objections be deducted solely from the objecting beneficiaries’ shares – not from the trust estates generally. That way, the beneficiaries who did not object would not have their inheritance diminished by litigation in which they decided not to participate, and from which they would not benefit.
Although the Surrogate’s Court dismissed all objections to the accountings, it relied on the Court of Appeals’ earlier holding in Matter of Dillon, 28 NY2d 597 (1971), and held that the trustees’ legal fees were to be paid from the trusts generally, and not simply from the objecting beneficiaries’ shares. The Appellate Division affirmed.
Surprisingly, the Court of Appeals did not simply distinguish Dillon from the case before it; the Court reconsidered Dillon. It opined that its decision in Dillon, where it held that SCPA 2110 mandated that the entire estate or trust be charged with the fiduciary’s legal fees, apparently ignored the plain meaning of the statute.
SCPA 2110 provides that “ . . . [t]he court may direct payment for [a fiduciary’s legal fees] from the estate generally or from the funds in the hands of the fiduciary belonging to any legatee, devisee, distributee, or person interested.” Noting that legislative intent should be ascertained from the plain meaning of the statute, the Court explained that there exists a presumption against legislative intent for an unjust or unreasonable result. It further stated that its decision in Matter of Ungrich, 201 NY 415 , rather than Dillon, should be used as a guide. Matter of Ungrich, like the Court’s holding in Hyde, focused on fairness. There, it was held that courts should have the discretion to direct whether a fiduciary’s legal fees should be paid by him individually, from the estate generally, or from individual beneficiaries’ shares.
In deferring to the plain meaning of the statute, the Hyde Court directed that Surrogates should assess the sources from which fees are to be paid, considering various factors such as:
(1) whether the objecting beneficiary acted solely in his or her interest or in the common interest of the estate; (2) the possible benefits to individual beneficiaries from the outcome of the underlying proceeding; (3) the extent of an individual beneficiary’s participation in the proceeding; (4) the good or bad faith of the objecting beneficiary; (5) whether there was justifiable doubt regarding the fiduciary’s conduct; (6) the portions of interest in the estate held by the non-objecting beneficiaries relative to the objecting beneficiaries; and (7) the future interests that could be affected by reallocation of fees to individual beneficiaries instead of to the corpus of the estate generally.
According to the Court, none of the above factors are determinative.
In view of the foregoing, the Court of Appeals remanded Hyde to the trial court for an analysis in accordance with its newly established guidelines, and an ultimate determination as to who would bear the cost of the trustees’ legal fees in defending their accountings.
This decision has clearly implemented a process that should result in more equitable allocations of a fiduciary’s legal expenses where applicable. But it may also have the effect of causing potential objectants to weigh the pros and cons of litigation even more carefully, especially when all beneficiaries are not on board with the decision.