To be Family or Not to be Family? That is the Question
May 30, 2014
Two recent decisions from the New York County Surrogate’s Court attempt to answer this question. In Estate of Weisberg, decided on April 8, 2014, the court addressed the issue of marriage. Faced with competing petitions for letters of administration, the court was asked to find as a matter of law, that the cross-petitioner was the decedent’s wife and sole distributee of the decedent’s estate. In Levien v Johnson, 2014 NY Slip Op 30995(U), decided on April 14, 2014, the court considered whether two adults adopted by the decedent’s grandchildren constituted “great-grandchildren” under the decedent’s will. In both cases, the court was asked to find that these familial relationships existed as a matter of law. However, as these cases demonstrate, that is not always the case.
In Estate of Weisberg, the cross-petitioner moved for summary judgment for a determination that she was the decedent’s surviving spouse, and thus entitled to letters of administration. The movant made the following two arguments: (1) the court was bound by a judicial finding in Family Court that she and the decedent were married; and (2) she and the decedent were married in an Islamic ceremony which created a legal marriage under New York law. The court was not persuaded by either position.
First, it declined to apply the doctrines of res judicata or collateral estoppel to the Family Court determination because that finding was not on the merits. Rather, it was an administrative action made solely for the purpose of assigning the matter to a referee. Indeed, because the parties reconciled, the Family Court never rendered any finding, either on the merits or as necessary to the relief sought, that the parties were married. Without that determination, the court was not bound by the Family Court’s determination, and it refused to consider it.
Regarding the validity of the Islamic ceremony, the court found that there was no material issue of fact that the petitioner and decedent participated in an Islamic marriage ceremony. The court noted, however, that it could not, as a matter of constitutional law, decide that the ceremony constituted a valid religious marriage ceremony. On the other hand, the court could consider whether that religious ceremony constituted a valid marriage under New York law. However, it found that the movant’s proof in that regard was deficient because there was no evidence that the requirements for a valid marriage under the Domestic Relations Law were complied with; to wit, that the petitioner and decedent solemnly declared that they take each other as husband and wife, or that the Imam who performed the ceremony had the religious authority to do so. Thus, the court could not rule as a matter of law that the cross-petitioner was the decedent’s spouse.
The issue in Levien was different, but raised an interesting question about familial relations in the estate context. The proceeding centered around a trust created under the decedent’s will which provided that upon the termination of the trust, distribution of the remainder would go to the decedent’s great-grandchildren per capita. Approximately 2½ years before the trust terminated by its terms, two of the decedent’s grandchildren (Stephen and Harlan) brought a proceeding to compel the trustees to invade the trust and make distributions to them from the trust principal to pay for ongoing medical expenses (they both suffered from muscular dystrophy). That proceeding was resolved by a stipulation of settlement in July 2012, in which Stephen and Harlan agreed to relinquish all rights as beneficiaries of income and/or principal of the trust. Three months later they each adopted an adult in Texas. They notified the trustees of the adoptions and sought to have those adopted adults declared the decedent’s great-grandchildren who were entitled to share in the remainder of the trust. It should come as no surprise that the trustees refused to recognize the adoptions, and they commenced a proceeding seeking a decree that the adopted children were not entitled to share in the trust. Interestingly, the trustees did not challenge the validity of the adoptions in the Surrogate’s Court proceeding. They argued instead, among other grounds, that recognizing the adopted children as the decedent’s great-grandchildren would violate the terms of the decedent’s will and the decedent’s intent; that the adoptions were “unique and unforeseeable” which should have been disclosed during the settlement negotiations; and Stephen and Harlan were using the adoptions as a means to circumvent the settlement agreement.
In the end, the court rejected all of the trustees’ arguments. On the issue of the decedent’s intent, the court stated that EPTL § 2-1.3(a) makes clear that the term “children” includes adopted children, unless the decedent “expresses a contrary intention.” The court then determined that there was nothing in the will indicating that the decedent intended for his great-grandchildren to be only those who were blood relations. The court found that the will’s silence on the issue of adoption did not create an ambiguity. The court similarly rejected the trustees’ “unforeseeability” argument, given New York’s long-standing recognition of adoption as a means to create a parent-child relationship as a matter of law, and here, that the adoptions did not affect the rights of the remainder beneficiaries, but merely added to the class thereof. Even if Stephen and Harlan had a duty to disclose the adoptions during the settlement negotiations, the court found that their failure to do so was not a basis for the court’s determination as to the status of the adopted children as remainder beneficiaries under the trust.
Rejecting the “sham adoption” argument, the court found that to the extent the trustees were claiming that the adoptions resulted from fraud, they needed to address that in the Texas courts. Unless and until that issue is determined in Texas, the court would give full faith and credit to the Texas adoptions. Furthermore, it found that the only way in which the adoptions would circumvent the settlement agreement, thereby paving the way for Stephen and Harlan to share in the assets of the decedent’s estate, is if their adopted children voluntarily share those assets with them, which the court was powerless to prevent.