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There are numerous and diverse matters that are presented to the Surrogate’s Court for resolution.  In the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, the Queens Surrogate’s Court and the Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court, just to name a few, cases are presented regarding a variety of estate administration and estate settlement controversies.  A review of some recent Court decisions provides insight into these disputes.  Will of Ida Seals was decided by Erie County Surrogate Barbara Howe on March 10, 2014.  This case involved a petition by the niece of a decedent to have the Court declare that a son of the decedent who was a named beneficiary in her Will was deceased since the son had been “absent” or not heard from since in or about 1980.  New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 2-1.7 entitled “Presumption of death from absence; effect of exposure to specific peril”, allows the Court to presume that a person is deceased under certain circumstances.  The Surrogate refused to invoke the presumption and to find that the son was deceased.  Instead, the Court found that the petitioner failed to sufficiently demonstrate that a diligent search was performed to provide a substantive basis for presuming the son’s death.  The petition was dismissed without prejudice for a later determination during the proceeding settling the fiduciary’s account.

Testament of Raffe is another recent case which was decided by Nassau Surrogate Edward McCarty III on March 7, 2014.  In Raffe the objectants to an accounting filed by a testamentary trustee asked the Court for an Order restraining the trustee from providing or using any additional trust funds to operate a home heating oil business that was owned by the trust.  The objectants asserted that the business was a failure and that the trust funds were being wasted.  After considering the various factors involved to support a preliminary injunction, the Surrogate refused to allow the restraint.  The Court found that any monetary harm could be rectified by a surcharge against the trustee and that economic loss that could be recognized in terms of money damages would not constitute the irreparable harm needed for an injunction.  Continue reading →

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Real estate is typically one of the most valuable assets comprising a decedent’s estate. Typically, a person’s residential house is a major asset. Many individuals also own commercial properties that may be used as a part of a business or may contain tenants. In view of the large worth of real estate assets it is common that the property is at the center of many estate battles.

A common occurrence appears to involve a pre-death transfer of the real estate interest to one person to the exclusion of others who would otherwise receive the property pursuant to a Last Will or through their rights of intestacy as a distributee of a decedent. Moreover, these lifetime transfers often occur when the decedent is elderly and suffers from physical or psychological conditions. Also, the deeds may be executed by persons acting as an attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney. Since these changes in property ownership appear to be improper and deprive potential beneficiaries of valuable inheritance rights, lawsuits in the Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court frequently occur concerning ownership rights and the validity of the deeds reflecting the transfers.

A recent case decided by Kings County Justice Francois A. Rivera on February 20, 2014 provides a good example of a controversy created by real estate owned by a decedent. In Juliano v. Juliano, the decedent (“Beatrice”) had owned a home in Brooklyn where she lived with some of her adult children. Beatrice had made a Last Will in which she left her entire estate, which included the house, to her four children in equal shares. Approximately 6 years prior to her death it appears that Beatrice signed a deed transferring her entire interest in the house to her son to the exclusion of the other 3 children. However, it seems that the son receiving the property (“Frank”) did not accept or record the deed at the time it was signed by Beatrice but waited about 6 years to record it.

Interestingly, the Court voided the deed because it found that the gift was not effective due to the lack of proper acceptance by Frank at the time the deed was made. Additionally, although the Court found that there was a confidential relationship between Beatrice and Frank that would have provided a basis for a finding of undue influence, the Court declined to void the transaction on that ground since it had determined the deed was invalid due to the lack of acceptance.

As an estate litigation attorney, I have represented numerous individuals in situations where issues have arisen concerning the alleged improper transfer of real estate and other assets from a decedent to a family member or to a third party. These cases are typically presented in Surrogate’s Court proceedings and Supreme Court proceedings. Sometimes the issue is raised before a person dies and is litigated in a Guardianship case. The Guardianship Court has the power to void deeds and other transactions it finds to be improper due to the abuse of a power of attorney or the incapacity of persons making the transfer.

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A New York Guardianship proceeding involves the determination of the capacity of an individual. In order for a Court to appoint a property management Guardian or a personal needs Guardian there must be a finding of incapacity.

Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) provides the statutory provisions for these proceedings. As discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, the case is commenced by the filing of a petition with the Court along with a paper known as an Order to Show Cause. After the Court reviews the petition and finds it to be sufficient to start the case, the Order is then signed. The signed Order contains the date and place for the hearing and the names of persons appointed by the Court as Court Evaluator or attorney for the alleged incapacitated person.

There are a number of fees that are generally associated with Guardianship matters. After a Guardian is appointed, he may be entitled to receive a fee or commissions for carrying out his guardianship obligations. The judgment appointing the Guardian typically sets forth the manner by which such fees are to be computed. The judgment usually provides for fees that are to be paid to other individuals such as the attorney who represented the petitioner and the Court Evaluator or the attorney who represented the incapacitated person. It is common for the Court to direct that these fees be paid out of the assets owned by the incapacitated person.

There are some occasions when the petition for guardianship is denied by the Court or the matter may be discontinued by the agreement of the parties. In these situations the Court has the authority under MHL Section 81.09(f) to direct that the petitioner pay for these fees in addition to the alleged incapacitated person. In a recent Brooklyn Guardianship case entitled “Matter of Brice v. Wilks“, decided by Judge Kathy J. King on February 4, 2014, the Court directed that the petitioner pay the Court Evaluator’s fees after the petition was denied.

It is important for a person considering starting a Guardianship case to consult with a knowledgeable Guardianship attorney who can review the issues that are involved and explain the various fees and costs that may be incurred. Sometimes the facts of a matter may involve a risk that the petitioner could be held responsible for fees that are not otherwise expected.

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New York Will Attorneys are aware that there are many aspects of a decedent’s estate that can result in controversy and estate litigation. A recent case decided by Queens Surrogate Peter J. Kelly on January 22, 2014 entitled “The Matter of Hill” and reported in the New York Law Journal, contains many issues that are common to estate disputes. In Hill, the decedent had executed a Last Will that provided for a residuary clause leaving the balance of the estate equally to the decedent’s two daughters, Brenda and Marcia. The Will also contained a pre-residuary provision which specifically devised real property equally to the two daughters subject to a life estate in favor of Brenda.

Brenda lived at the real property premises with the decedent and became her attorney- in-fact in a power of attorney. Shortly before the decedent’s death Brenda used the power of attorney to transfer the real property from the decedent into Brenda’s sole name.

The transfer of the deed by Brenda as attorney-in-fact to herself is not an uncommon occurrence. Litigation by New York estate attorneys as well as Queens Guardianship Lawyers concerning such circumstances is often commenced to void the deeds in these transfers. Under both the estate laws and the New York Guardianship laws improper transfers of a person’s assets can be invalidated and the property or the proceeds thereof recovered. Moreover, an attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney has an obligation to account for his actions especially where there appears to be self-dealing by having transfers made for one’s own account. The Courts are more likely to find impropriety where a person abuses a confidential relationship by benefiting from his position of trust or authority.

In Hill the Court had previously found that the deed transfer by Marcia was voidable and the estate was able to recover title to the property. However, the dispute in Hill did not end. Since the real property had been transferred before the decedent’s death it was not part of the decedent’s estate when she died. As a result Marcia claimed that the property was subject to the rules of Ademption which effectively provide that when property that is specifically given under a Will does not exist when the decedent dies, the gift is essentially ignored. If the Court in Hill had applied the Ademption rule, then the real estate, once recovered, would have been disposed of under the residuary clause to the two daughters and not by the specific pre-residuary provision. This result would have eliminated Brenda’s life estate.

Notwithstanding Brenda’s improper and voidable transfer of the deed, the Court held that the recovery of the title to the property by the estate although occurring after the decedent’s death, prevented the application of the Ademption rule. The Court also stated that Maria had a fiduciary obligation to the estate to recover the deed and that she should not personally profit by not following the terms of the Will.

I have represented many clients in New York Guardianship cases and estates where it was necessary to recover property that was improperly transferred. As can be learned from Hill, the Courts are receptive to proceedings to rectify a breach of fiduciary duty by a fiduciary and to enforce the disposition of assets in the manner a decedent expresses in his Last Will.

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Fiduciaries such as Executors, Administrators and Trustees are frequently required to participate in proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court. There are many different types of cases in the Court such as probate and administration proceedings and accountings. For example a Brooklyn Estate Lawyer might be retained by an Executor to represent the executor in a discovery proceeding to recover assets that are claimed to have belonged to the decedent. Similarly, a Bronx Estate Attorney may be hired by a fiduciary to assist with the interpretation or construction of a Last Will or Trust Agreement that is ambiguous.

There are occasions when the Executor or other fiduciary may find hiring an attorney to be difficult because the estate or the trust either does not have any assets or the assets are not liquid or available to pay counsel fees. A question would then arise as to whether the fiduciary could represent himself pro se in his capacity as a fiduciary. This issue was recently presented to Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson in “Matter of Van Patten” which was decided on February 10, 2014 and reported in the New York Law Journal. In Van Patten the non-attorney Executor of the estate of a trust income beneficiary sought to represent herself pro-se in the trustee’s accounting proceeding. The Court found that the Executor, as a fiduciary, had obligations to potential estate beneficiaries and creditors and the pro-se representation by a non-attorney fiduciary would constitute an unlawful practice of law. The Executor was directed to retain an attorney or risk having the estate’s objections to the trust accounting dismissed.

As can be seen from this case, representation of a fiduciary in Surrogate’s Court proceedings can be quite complex. A fiduciary has numerous obligations and must protect the interests of estate beneficiaries as well as other parties such as creditors. As a New York estate attorney, I am familiar with the various duties that estate representatives must attend to as well as the laws and procedures involved with estate settlement. I assist my clients regarding these issues and work with them concerning all matters to finalize an estate.

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An estate executor or administrator has the fiduciary duty to locate and collect the decedent’s assets. This obligation is paramount in protecting the beneficiaries’ interests and maximizing the distributions that they will receive upon the settlement of the decedent’s estate. Queens estate lawyers and Brooklyn probate attorneys are familiar with the various steps that estate representatives should take to identify these assets. Items such as bank accounts, real estate, stocks and bonds and other investments that are owned by a decedent are fairly easy to identify and to collect, liquidate and deposit into an estate bank account. Other assets may not be so easy to recognize or to get control over. For example, a decedent may have ownership in copyrights, trademarks and patents. Another interesting property interest may involve what are known as publicity rights. These rights which are recognized in a number of states but not in New York allow a person’s estate or heirs to retain the right to commercially exploit the person’s celebrity after death. The post-death marketing of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson has generated vast sums of money. There have recently been a number of cases dealing with these rights. In an article by Eriq Gardner in on January 29, 2014 entitled “Jimi Hendrix Estate Wins Appeal Over Unlicensed Merchandise“, it was reported that a Federal appeals court issued a ruling expanding the enforceability of publicity rights. In the case of Jimi Hendrix, even though the rock star’s estate was based in New York which state does not recognize these rights, the Court stated that the estate could take advantage of Washington state’s laws that have broad protection of publicity rights with regard to a dispute in Washington state.

Another interesting rights battle was reported by Eriq Gardner at on February 7, 2014 in a post entitled “Twitter in Legal War Over @JamesDean“. In this court case the company that manages the late actor James Dean’s licensing rights has sued Twitter to stop the use by an anonymous person who has registered @JamesDean. This case is in an Indian State Court and alleges a wrongful exploitation of the actor’s publicity rights.

In yet another recent case reported by Eriq Gardner on January 30, 2014 at entitled “Bing Crosby’s First Wife Denied Value of His Publicity Rights“, the court indicated that such rights may not be community rights and, therefore, a celebrity is entitled to the whole of such rights notwithstanding any lifetime spousal claims.

As can be seen from the above discussion, an estate fiduciary may be faced with many complex issues regarding a decedent’s assets during the course of estate administration. As a New York estate lawyer I have represented many executors and administrators and assisted them in collecting and distributing the assets of a decedent.

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Taking advantage of older persons for economic gain is not uncommon. New York Guardianship Lawyers are familiar with many cases where a person who is incapacitated due to a physical or psychological condition is misled and mistreated in order to obtain control of their finances.

Guardianship proceedings under Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) often involve situations where a caretaker or close relative or friend misuses their authority through a durable power of attorney or other paper to obtain control or the transfer of a person’s assets. Sometimes these papers include a Last Will that is all of a sudden changed and disinherits the incapacitated person’s family in favor of the wrongdoer. A number of recent blog posts provide examples of this all too frequent occurrence. In a post by Liz Schumer on January 27, 2014 at entitled “Elder fraud: one woman’s story, a nationwide epidemic“, the tragic story is told about a Chicago woman who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In this case various persons conspired to get a power of attorney and guardianship over the woman and estrange her from her daughter. The post describes how the wrongdoers manipulated the woman and provides an excellent set of circumstances that are indicators of the existence of elder abuse such as large withdrawals from bank accounts, changes in the person’s legal documents such as a Will or Power of Attorney and unusual financial activity that the person would not ordinarily engage in.

Another recent post appearing at on February 8, 2014 by Rene Stutzman entitled “Jeno Paulucci heirs fight over $150 million“, describes a recent Court filing that alleges that a multi-millionaire businessman who was 93 years old, legally blind and in intensive care transferred control over most of his $150 million estate from his longtime attorneys to other confidants.

Both the New York Guardianship Courts and the Surrogate’s Courts review cases where relatives claim that they were wrongfully deprived of their inheritance or assets which were improperly taken from their incapacitated next of kin. These Courts have the ability under numerous statutes and case-law to undue the abuse that has occurred by voiding powers of attorney or deeds and bank account transfers or denying probate to a Last Will.

I have represented many individuals in proceedings where elder abuse has occurred and the Court is requested to remedy the situation. Guardianship courts such as the Queens Guardianship Court and Manhattan Guardianship Court are vigilant in protecting senior’s rights and providing a remedy for financial manipulation of a person’s assets.

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New York Executors and Administrators have the obligation to settle a decedent’s estate. As discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, an Executor is appointed when the decedent dies leaving a Last Will and Testament. An Administrator is appointed when there is no Will and a decedent dies intestate.

The powers of a fiduciary are provided for in a number of ways. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 11-1.1 entitled “Fiduciaries’ Powers” sets forth the many statutory items that a fiduciary can perform such as investing estate property, collecting rent and paying all reasonable and proper expenses. In addition to the powers provided by the statute, where a decedent leaves a Will, such document can modify or expand the powers given to the fiduciary. Also, when the Court appoints a fiduciary, the appointment may provide a limitation or specification of the powers. In the case of an Executor, the letters testamentary that are issued by the Court after the Will is admitted to probate can provide a limitation that the fiduciary can collect only a certain amount of assets or perform only limited tasks. Similarly, letters of administration that are issued to an administrator can contain similar limitations.

During the course of estate settlement, a fiduciary is going to collect estate assets such as bank and brokerage accounts that were owned by the decedent. In order to obtain these funds for the estate, the bank or brokerage house typically requests that the fiduciary present a certified copy of the letter of appointment which shows that the fiduciary is authorized to act on behalf of the estate. In most cases upon the presentation of the letters and other supporting papers such as a copy of a death certificate and withdrawal forms, the decedent’s funds are then forwarded to the estate for deposit into an estate bank account.

Sometimes the collection of estate assets becomes more complicated and the person or institution holding the decedent’s funds does not cooperate with the fiduciary or turn over the decedent’s assets. In a recent case decided by Bronx Surrogate Nelida Malave-Gonzalez on January 27, 2014, entitled “Estate of Rose Hamilton” and reported in the New York Law Journal, Capital One Bank refused to cooperate with an administrator with regard to providing access to the decedent’s safe deposit box. Notwithstanding that the letters of administration issued to the administrator limited the collection of assets to $38,000.00, the Surrogate held that the fiduciary still had the authority to have access to the safe deposit box.

A Brooklyn Probate Attorney and a Queens Probate Attorney can assist a fiduciary with collecting a decedent’s assets and settling an estate. I have worked with many fiduciaries throughout New York to help with the administration process.

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The New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) along with the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) contain the statutory rules and procedures regarding decedent’s estates. EPTL Section 3-2.1 entitled “Execution and Attestation of Wills; formal requirements” has been discussed in previous blog posts. This section sets forth the rules that control the valid signing of a Last Will. The section provides, for example, that the Will must be signed at the end of the document by the testator. It also states that anything that is placed on the document following the signature as well as any matter that is added to the Will preceding the signature but after the Will is signed, shall be invalid.

New York estate lawyers are familiar with the proper preparation and execution of Wills in order to comply with statutory rules. However, there are occasions when documents appear to lack compliance with the statute and require review by the Surrogate’s Court. In Estate of Thomas a Will was filed for probate that contained numerous handwritten alterations to bequests set forth in the paper. In a decision dated January 7, 2014 and reported in the New York Law Journal, Bronx Surrogate Nelida Malave-Gonzalez reviewed the document and the evidence presented to the Court. The evidence included an affidavit from the attorney who prepared the Will which stated that when the Will was signed it did not contain the handwritten changes that were later found on the document. Based upon his proof and other information, the Surrogate found that the handwritten changes did not comply with the requirements of EPTL 3-2.1 and thus were not valid. The Will was admitted to probate and the alterations were ignored and did not change the original provisions of the Will.

In the event an individual wants to change or amend their Will there are two ways to proceed. A Codicil can be prepared which only revises the provisions that are sought to be amended. Instead of a Codicil, the entire Will can be redone in which the only change is the desired modification. Both the Codicil and the new Will need to be executed in accordance with the statutory requirements. The preferred method is to revise and sign a new Will. This tends to eliminate both any confusion and the need to keep track of a number of separately signed papers.

It is always important to have a Will and other documents such as a Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney and Living Will properly executed. Additionally, in the event a creator wants to amend or change any of the provisions in these papers, it is equally important to do so in a manner that is proper so that the changes can become effective. All testamentary and advance directive papers should be prepared and signed correctly to avoid estate litigation such as Will Contests and to allow easy estate settlement.

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The New York Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) provides in Article 81 for the appointment of Guardians for personal needs and for property management. MHL Section 81.04 entitled “Jurisdiction” provides that the Court will have the authority to provide relief for someone who is a state resident, or a non-resident that is located in the state or to assist a foreign guardian. MHL Section 81.05 provides that the guardianship proceeding shall be commenced in the county where the alleged incapacitated person resides or is actually present.

Under the present statutes, confusion and controversy often arose when an alleged incapacitated person moved or was taken out of New York to a different state since New York would lose its jurisdiction to determine the need for a Guardian even through the person had lived in New York during his or her life.

Additionally, while New York has its rules regarding Guardianship, other states have their own separate requirements and standards. The appointment of a Guardian in New York would not result in the Guardian having any authority to act in any other state. Therefore, a new guardianship proceeding would need to be commenced if the Guardian wanted to relocate the incapacitated person to another state.

Recently, New York changed its statute to adopt the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act (“UAGPPJA”). This new law becomes effective in April 2014. The law provides a mechanism by which a state with a priority of contacts with an alleged incapacitated person would have the primary right to determine the need for a guardianship. Guardianship proceedings could be transferred between cooperating states. Also, states that have enacted this law would be able to recognize out-of-state guardianship determinations. This would eliminate the need to bring new proceedings if it was necessary to relocate an incapacitated person for family or health care needs.

Petitions for guardianship can be a complicated process. In many cases assets and family members are located in different states. If there is a dispute among those seeking a guardianship, the simple act of transporting an alleged incapacitated person from one state to another can disrupt the entire process and put the welfare of the disabled person at risk. The enactment of the UAGPPJA should help alleviate these problems.

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