The Contest of a Will in New York, as in most other jurisdictions, brings to mind a tense scene inside a courtroom where a trial is ongoing between a decedent's family and some interloper such as a nursing aide or other non-relative who has forced an old and unknowing decedent to disinherit his family. While many Will contests end in a trial, most such estate litigations are settled or disposed of before a trial in the Surrogate's Court.
Additionally, a trial is the last of many different types of procedures and proceedings that comprise a case involving a dispute regarding the validity of a Will. The proceedings typically begin with the Probate Proceeding where a Probate Petition is filed with the Surrogate's Court seeking a Will's validation. At that point various statutes and rules contained in the New York Surrogate's Court Procedure Act (SCPA) and the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law require that the decedent's distributees (ie next of kin) be notified and afforded the opportunity to challenge the Will. However, instead of heading right into a trial, the opposing parties typically engage in a pre-trial process. This process often begins with the discovery of information that is allowed by SCPA 1404.
The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed SCPA 1404 in previous posts. Essentially, this statute allows a person who has filed or is just considering filing Objections to a Will, to take the pre-trial testimony of the attesting witnesses to a Will and the person who prepared the Will such as the attorney draftsperson. The nominated executors and the proponents of the Will may also be examined if there is an in terrorem clause. SCPA 1404 also allows the parties to obtain discovery documents that may be relevant to this examination.
One interesting aspect of this discovery process is a rule that is contained in Section 207.27 of the New York Surrogate's Court Uniform Rules. This section limits the examination to a time period that is three years prior to date of the Will and two years after such date or the date of the death of the decedent, whichever is shorter. The Court can extend these periods of times if it is shown that special circumstances require the extension.
In a recent case decided by Nassau Surrogate Edward McCarty III on June 28, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on August 23, 2013, entitled Will of Janet Soluri, the Court denied a request for documents dated outside of the above 3 year/2 year parameter since special circumstances were not shown to exist.
The discovery process and Court proceedings involved in a Contested Probate matter can be very complex and require the advice of estate attorneys who are familiar with the Surrogate's Court and Estate Litigation. Examining witnesses to a Will, preparing and filing Will Objections and analyzing the facts and issues in these proceedings in order to protect the rights of disinherited heirs is typically challenging.