Representation of Charities by the Attorney General
May 23, 2016
Many estate practitioners are familiar with litigated matters in which a charity interested in the proceeding is cited, as is the Attorney General, and both the Attorney General and private counsel for the charity appear in the proceeding. In such cases, both the Attorney General and the charity’s counsel represent the charity (although as a practical matter, since the charity has private counsel, the Attorney General may take a less pronounced role in the litigation, electing instead to defer to the charity’s chosen counsel). What happens, however, when the status and identity of the charitable beneficiary is less than certain? That was precisely the situation facing the New York County Surrogate’s Court in the probate contest involving the much-publicized estate of Huguette Clark.
Huguette Clark died on May 24, 2011, leaving a Last Will and Testament dated April 19, 2005, which disinherited her family. However, just six weeks earlier, on March 7, 2005, Huguette executed a will naming her family as residuary beneficiaries.
Article FOURTH of the propounded will directed that the nominated executors form a private foundation to be named the Bellosguardo Foundation and “take all necessary steps to organize, operated (sic) and qualify said foundation as an educational organization, as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Code, for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the Arts.”
In June, 2011, a bare two weeks after Huguette died, and notwithstanding that the propounded will had not been admitted to probate, three entities called the Bellosguardo Foundation were formed — one in California, one in Delaware, and one in New York.
Ultimately, members of Huguette Clark’s family, represented by Farrell Fritz, filed objections to probate. The New York State Attorney General appeared in the now-contested probate proceeding to represent the charitable interests under the will. In addition, a private law firm filed a Notice of Appearance in the proceeding, purporting to appear on behalf of an entity called the “Bellosguardo Foundation” (there was no indication which foundation — i.e., the California, Delaware, or New York foundations — the law firm purported to represent).
The probate proceeding was scheduled for trial in September 2013. There were numerous motions submitted by the various parties in the months preceding the trial. While most of those motions were evidentiary in nature, one, brought by Farrell Fritz on behalf of the Clark family, sought to strike the private law firm’s Notice of Appearance filed on behalf of the so-called “Bellosguardo Foundation.” The family took the position that the foundation was not the foundation referenced in the will and, therefore, had no standing to participate in the trial. Farrell Fritz argued on behalf of the family that the propounded will’s direction regarding the formation of a foundation had no legal effect prior to the admission of the will to probate. Although the propounded will directed that the executors form a foundation, there were no executors prior to the will’s admission to probate, and, thus, the foundation referenced in the propounded will did not, and could not, exist prior to probate. That a person incorporated an entity with the same name as the foundation to be formed in the event the propounded will were admitted to probate, and then caused that entity to appear in the probate proceeding, did not make the entity the “Bellosguardo Foundation” to be formed under the will.
Nor was it necessary to permit the foundation to participate in the proceeding, as the charitable interest under the propounded will was being adequately represented by the Attorney-General, who “has the statutory power and duty to represent the beneficiaries of any disposition for charitable purposes (EPTL 8-1.1(f); other cites omitted)” (Alco Gravure Inc. et al. v. The Knapp Foundation, 64 NY2d 458, 465 ). Moreover, while a charitable beneficiary has standing to participate in a litigated proceeding in which it is interested, the Attorney General’s standing to represent a charitable interest is exclusive where the charity’s status is indefinite or uncertain, or, to express it differently, where the charity is “not within a class of potential beneficiaries that is ‘sharply defined and limited in number’ (Alco Gravure, 64 NY2d at 465).” (Matter of Rosenthal, [Helmsley Charitable Trust], 99 AD3d 573 [1st Dept 2012]).
Both the Public Administrator of New York County and the Attorney General’s office supported the Clark family’s motion. On the eve of the trial, Surrogate Anderson rendered her decision, granting the motion. The Surrogate noted that, “[t]he Attorney General, who is charged under the Estate’s Powers and Trusts Law § 8-1.4(e)(2) with representing all charitable interests under the subject will, has been demonstratively adequate and diligent in representing the interests of the Bellosguardo Foundation to be formed. Further, the Attorney General has exclusive standing to represent a beneficiary of a disposition for charitable purposes when such beneficiary is indefinite or uncertain (EPTL §8-1.1(f))” (Estate of Huguette M. Clark, NYLJ 9/27/13, p. 25, col. 1. [Sur Ct, New York County]).
Subsequently, the parties in the litigation were able to settle the contest. Thereafter, the true Bellosguardo Foundation was formed, as mandated by the Propounded Will as admitted to probate by the Surrogate.