Probate Administration | Wrongful Actions
There are certain basic legal requirements when a person transfers property, conveys a power of attorney or establishes a plan for the distribution of an estate. Among the most important are:
- The person must have appropriate legal capacity
- The person must not have been subject to “undue influence”
In the Matter of Wechsler, a 2015 opinion from the New York County Surrogate’s Court, specifically addresses both of these issues.
Lewis Wechsler died in February, 2006, survived by his wife of 30 years and two adult children from a previous marriage. In the probate proceedings to settle his estate, a will executed in November 2004 was offered to the court. That will placed all his property into trust for the lifetime benefit of his wife, with his children designated as beneficiaries upon her death. The deceased had executed five prior wills, the first in 1992, with the same provisions.
During the probate proceedings, however, it was discovered that most of the property that would have passed through the will had been transferred to the decedent’s wife through a serious of transactions, starting in June, 2005. This included the execution of a power of attorney in favor of the wife, as well as the transfer of individually owned property to jointly held property. The executor asked the Surrogate Court to compel the wife to turn over property, alleging that the decedent lacked capacity to make property transfers or execute a power of attorney, and that the wife had exerted undue influence to bring about the property transfers. The wife asked the court to dismiss the executor’s motion, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of lack of capacity.
As a general rule, legal capacity refers to the ability to understand both the nature of a transaction or agreement, as well as its consequences. In Wechsler, the executor introduced evidence indicating that the decedent had been admitted to the hospital the day before he executed the first transfer of property to his wife (in June, 2005). Notes from that admission state that he “was becoming more confused recently,” and diagnosed him with a “waning mental status,” indicating that he occasionally mistook his daughter for his wife. Other documentation from that visit described him as “forgetful” and prone to lapses in short-term memory.
The wife contended that the confusion and disorientation demonstrated that day were a one-time occurrence, citing other assessments that the decedent was “alert and oriented” and able to communicate his needs.
The court ruled that the determination of whether the deceased had the necessary capacity to execute the first transfer was a factual issue that needed to be (and had not been) resolved. Accordingly, the court denied the motion to dismiss. However, because the executor had introduced no evidence suggesting that the decedent experienced the same capacity issues when the other property was transferred, the court ruled that all transfers except the first one were valid. (NOTE: The executor had introduced expert testimony from a medical professional alleging incapacity at the time of the other transactions. The court rejected that testimony, citing the fact that the expert had never personally examined the decedent or discussed his condition with attending nurses or physicians).
As stated by the court in Wechsler, undue influence requires a showing of influence that amounted to “moral coercion.” That influence must have “restrained independent action” and must have led the decedent to do something which was “against his free will and desire.”
The court concluded that there were genuine issues regarding whether or not the wife exerted undue influence. The medical record indicated that he was in extremely poor health and suffering from depression at the time of the transactions. Evidence also showed that the wife was integrally involved in all the transactions. She drafted some of the letters requesting property transfers and also brought documents to the decedent, so that he could sign them from his hospital bed. In addition, the court was troubled by the fact that the decedent had used the same attorney to handle all prior estate planning (the executor), but that attorney had not been consulted before these transactions.
Because the court perceived that there were still factual issues to be resolved regarding the question of undue influence, the court denied the wife’s motion to dismiss the action.
At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, P.C. , we focus our estate administration practice on estates subject to probate in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island. Contact our office online or call us at 631-425-7299 to set up a free initial consultation.
Author: Bonnie Lawston
Perhaps the most common way to transfer property upon death in the State of New York is through a valid will or trust. What happens, though, if you’ve entered into a binding contract to transfer certain property to a specific beneficiary under you will, but the terms of the document convey it to someone else? Which document takes priority?
The Surrogate Court for Nassau County looked at this specific legal issue in Schwartz v. Bourque, 2017 NY Slip Op 31621 (U)(Sur. Ct., Nassau County, June 14, 2017), concluding that a person who enters into a valid contract to transfer property upon death may not subsequently agree to transfer the property to another person, either while still alive or in a will.
In the Schwartz case, the dispute centered on title to the real property where the decedent and two subsequent generations resided. Initially, the deceased (Mother) was the sole owner of the property, but executed an agreement in 1978 that allowed her daughter (Daughter) to live on the property for as long as she desired, provided she paid the “carrying charges” on the residence. The agreement also promised to convey full legal title to the Daughter in the Mother’s will.
The 1978 agreement was amended six years later, with the preparation and execution of a new agreement and a deed, immediately conveying a one-half interest in the property to the Daughter. In 2012, however, the Mother executed a new deed, attempting to transfer the remaining one-half interest in the property to her granddaughter (Granddaughter). The Daughter objected to the conveyance, arguing that it violated the 1978 agreement. The Granddaughter claimed that the 1984 agreement superseded the 1978 agreement and, because it contained no clause regarding the transfer of the property by will, that clause was no longer valid.
After reviewing the facts, the court ruled that a subsequent contract will only replace and render a prior contract void under one of two circumstances:
- The subsequent contract contains specific language voiding or superseding the earlier agreement—the court found that it did not
- The contracts covered exactly the same subject matter—the court found that they did not, as one made a promise of a testamentary disposition and the other did not
Because the Granddaughter could not show that the 1984 agreement superseded the 1978 agreement and revoked the promise to convey the property to the Daughter in the Mother’s will, the Granddaughter was not legally entitled to any interest in the property. Accordingly, the 2012 deed was not valid.
It’s obvious from the facts of this case that an estate matter can become extremely complicated. It’s critical that you have an experienced, knowledgeable and capable lawyer to protect your interests. Probate and Estate Administration Attorney Bonnie Lawston brings more than two decades of hands-on experience in estate litigation to clients across Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island, New York.
Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston for all your Probate and Estate Administration matters.
At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we offer experienced estate litigation counsel to individuals across Suffolk County and Nassau County. Contact our office online or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700, to set up a free initial consultation.
It’s pretty common procedure for a fiduciary to a trust to obtain a release, with the objective of waiving the fiduciary’s obligation to provide an accounting of the assets of the estate and trust. A recent opinion from the Surrogate Court in New York County casts some doubt on the potential validity of such releases.
In Matter of Ingraham, NYLJ, June 16, 2017, at p. 28 (Sur. Ct., New York County), the court considered the validity of a receipt and release and ruled that it did not absolve the trustee from the legal responsibility to provide an accounting. In Ingraham, a successor trustee had filed a petition with the Surrogate Court asking that the former trustees submit an accounting. One trustee complied with the request, but the other trustee objected, citing both the language of the trust document, which she argued relieved her from any obligation to provide an accounting; and releases that had been signed and executed by the trust’s grantor and by the other trustee.
According to evidence entered during the proceeding, the document signed by the grantor released the trustee from “any and all claims related in any way to her role as trustee,” other than claims arising as a result of fraud or willful misconduct. The document also included a provision waiving the right to a formal accounting of the trust. The other trustee had executed a similar release.
The court, however, found that that trustee could not use the release to avoid the duty to provide an accounting, citing two specific reasons:
- The release specifically reserves the right to seek relief if there are allegations of willful misconduct or fraud
- The duty to provide an accounting is a fundamental aspect of any fiduciary relation, an essential part of a trustee’s duty
The court also concluded that, even if the released waived the grantor’s right to an accounting, it was not legally binding on the other trustee, successor trustees and trust beneficiaries. Furthermore, the court rejected the argument that the trust document waived the requirement that trustees provide an accounting, concluding that the trust document only waived the obligation to provide periodic accountings, not the requirement that there be a final accounting.
When you’re involved in an estate or trust administration dispute, it’s essential that you have knowledgeable, skilled and experienced legal representation. Estate and Probate Attorney Bonnie Lawston has protected the rights of individuals in trust and estate matters on Long Island for more than 20 years.
Contact Probate and Estate Administration Attorney Bonnie Lawston for all your Probate and Estate Administration matters.
Execution of A Will
It’s not uncommon, in New York and other jurisdictions, for dispossessed or unhappy heirs to allege that a will was executed under duress or undue influence. What if you videotape the execution of the will, so that there’s visual evidence to support the assertion that the decisions regarding disposition of property were entered into knowingly and voluntarily?
While a video recording of the actual event of executing a will can be introduced as evidence in proceedings to determine the validity of the will, it’s important to start with the understanding that visual evidence is not totally objective of infallible. Consider that ten people can witness the same accident and have ten different descriptions of what happened. Nonetheless, if you are considering videotaping the execution of a will, here are some factors to consider.
The Videotape May Not Be Allowed as Evidence
The decision to allow the videotape into evidence is solely at the discretion of the court. The court may not consider it relevant to the matters being litigated. The court may conclude that the videotape provides no credible evidence of capacity or intent.
The Court Must Have Reason to Believe that the Tape is Authentic
You will probably need to bring witnesses into to court to testify that they were present when the video was taken. In legal terms, this is known as establishing a proper foundation for the evidence. The court must have some basis for believing that the tape is what it is alleged to be.
The Court Must Have Confidence that the Tape Has Not Been Altered
In addition, the court may have concerns about the “chain of custody” of the videotape. The court will want reasonable assurances that the video presented was actually taken at the time represented and that the videotape has not been altered or tampered with between the recording and its presentation as evidence. Accordingly, it may be necessary to document when and where the recording took place, where the videotape was secured immediately after the recording, who had access to the tape while it was secured, any movement of the tape (along with who moved it) and how it got to court.
Of course, there are no assurances that the video recording will have any impact on the outcome of the dispute. A judge or jury may watch the video and come away with a completely different perception of the events than intended.
Contact the New York Law Office of Bonnie Lawston
At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we focus our estate administration practice on estates subject to probate in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island. Contact our office online or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700 to set up a free initial consultation.
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