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New York Gifts Made Prior to Death Are Often the Subject of After Death Disputes

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many items concerning Estate Litigation. Litigation in New York Estates in common in the context of a Will Contest where a distributee (next of kin) such as a child is either completely excluded from the Will or left a bequest that is less than expected. Other typical situations are where a Will disposes of an estate to unrelated third parties such as a caretaker or friend. Allegations concerning undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity or duress usually result from such occurrences. Where a Will is contested, the focus is not only on the decedent but also on the witnesses to the Will and the attorney draftsperson who can testify and shed light on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the estate plan and the Will execution process.

However, not all estate disputes concern bequests that emanate from a Will after death. Many times controversy surrounds inter vivos or lifetime gifts that are made by a decedent. Such gifts can be subject to attack based upon similar grounds of lack of capacity. Often, the lifetime gifts appear inconsistent with, and actually can destroy, an estate plan that the decedent set forth in a Last Will or Living Trust document.

Gift litigation can take place in different forms. Sometimes, prior to a person’s death, an Article 81 Guardianship proceeding may be commenced due to a person’s incapacity. Section 81.29 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law gives the Court the power to revoke transfers that were made by an incapacitated person. In situations that come to light after a decedent’s death, an estate fiduciary, such as Executor or Administrator, can seek to recover assets for the estate where the life-time transfer appears to be improper. Proceedings for the turn-over of assets are provided in New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 2103.

An estate fiduciary has the responsibility to attempt to marshal and collect all of the assets that rightfully belong to the decedent. Demonstrating that a person lacked the capacity to make a certain lifetime gift is not easy. An example of the difficulty in prevailing with such a claim is shown in the recent case of Estate of Magda Cordell McHale, decided by Surrogate Barbara Howe of Erie County on September 28, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on October 9, 2012.

In McHale, a beneficiary under the decedent’s Last Will objected to the fiduciary accounting due to the failure to include certain charitable gifts the decedent made shortly before her death. After a hearing the Court concluded that the decedent had both the “intent” and “capacity” to make the pre-death gift.

Cases such as McHale present many difficult issues involving estate settlement and fiduciary responsibility. I have represented individual family members who have felt that such pre-death gifts were the result of undue influence. I have similarly defended individuals who have received pre-death gifts where assertions have been made that such gifts were the result of undue influence. In all cases, it is important to review the history of the decedent, the expressions of intent that may have been made and the relationships been the various parties in order to have a full and clear picture about the proprietary of the disputed transfer.


New York City Estate and Trust Attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in Estate and Guardianship matters in the Bronx and Manhattan and other New York Counties throughout the past 30 years. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a New York Estate or Guardianship, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 or email: jules.haas@verizon.net, for an initial consultation.

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