Proof of Wrongdoing and the Right of Election
July 14, 2016
In 2010, the Appellate Division, Second Department, made it clear that principles of equity grounded in rules of forfeiture can adversely impact a surviving spouse’s entitlement to an elective share. In Campbell v. Thomas, 73 AD3d 103 (2d Dept 2010), the Appellate Division rendered a decision of first impression when it denied the right of election asserted by the decedent’s surviving spouse based on the equitable principle that a party may not profit from his or her own wrongdoing. In Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883 (2d Dept 2010), the Appellate Division adhered to the foregoing principles when it reversed a decree of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, which granted the petitioner, the surviving spouse of the decedent, summary judgment determining the validity of her right of election against the decedent’s estate. Following the 2010 opinion in Matter of Berk, the case continued to wind its way through the Surrogate’s Court as it headed towards trial.
Recently, the Appellate Division, Second Department, had the opportunity to readdress the parties in Matter of Berk, and provide practitioners with further instruction on the issues impacting the claimed elective share. Specifically, the Court modified an order of the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County (Johnson, S.) by (1) adding as an issue of fact to be tried the question of whether the petitioner, the decedent’s surviving spouse, exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate, and (2) replacing so much of the order, as imposed the burden of proof on appellants, the executors of the estate, by clear and convincing evidence, with a provision that placed the burden of proof on appellants by a preponderance of the credible evidence (see Matter of Berk, 133 AD3d 850 [2d Dept 2015]).
As readers may recall, the underlying proceeding involved a petition by the surviving spouse of the decedent for a determination of the validity and effect of her exercise of her right of election against his estate pursuant to EPTL 5-1.1-A. In their answer, the appellants, the executors of the estate, asserted as an affirmative defense that the decedent was incompetent to enter into a marriage, that the petitioner knew that he was incapable of entering into a marriage, and that the petitioner had exercised undue influence over the decedent to convince him to marry her.
As stated, on a prior appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed an order granting summary judgment to the petitioner, finding that there was an issue of fact as to whether the petitioner had forfeited her right of election by her alleged wrongdoing; that is, by marrying the decedent knowing that he was mentally incapable of consenting to a marriage for the purpose of obtaining pecuniary benefits from his estate. The Court further ruled that the appellants’ counterclaims alleging undue influence were improperly dismissed.
On remitter to the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, the parties submitted proposed statements of the issues to be determined at trial, as well as proposals concerning the burden and quantum of proof on the issues. In the order appealed from, the Surrogate’s Court limited the issues for trial to whether the decedent was mentally incapacitated and incapable of consenting to his marriage to the petitioner, and if so, whether the petitioner took unfair advantage of him by marrying him for the purpose of availing herself, as his surviving spouse, of his estate at death. The Surrogate further ruled that the appellants/executors had the burden of proof on the issues by clear and convincing evidence. The Surrogate did not include the issue of undue influence as a matter to be determined. The executors appealed.
The Appellate Division opined that the issue of whether the petitioner had forfeited her elective share under the circumstances raised by the proceeding was based on the equitable doctrine that the petitioner should not profit from her own wrongdoing. Where a claim of wrongful conduct is made, the parties asserting same, i.e., the appellants, have the burden of proving the wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence. The Court further held that evidence of a confidential relationship between the petitioner and the decedent, by virtue of their marriage, was not, in itself, proof of the petitioner’s wrongdoing, and, as such, did not shift the burden of proof to the petitioner to prove otherwise.
Additionally, the Court held that an alternative ground for forfeiture of the right of election was whether the petitioner exercised undue influence upon the decedent to induce him to marry her. Again, the Court determined that the appellants had the burden of proof on this issue by a preponderance of the credible evidence.
The Berk matter is now primed for trial. Stay tuned for what is sure to be an instructive outcome.