A New York Divorce Settlement Agreement May Be Enforceable Despite the Death of One Party Prior to a Divorce

shutterstock_74680495-2-1-300x200An interesting aspect of New York estate law and practice is its intersection with other areas of law.  For example, the New York Probate Lawyer Blog contains numerous articles discussing issues concerning the appointment of a guardian for personal needs and property management under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law.  In many cases, a decedent, due to advanced age or disability, may have been the subject of a guardianship proceeding prior to death.  Such proceeding may have dealt with issues regarding a decedent’s capacity or assets which may be directly related to post-death matters concerning the validity of a Last Will and Testament or pre-death transfers of property.

Similarly, prior to death, a decedent may have been involved in a divorce or other matrimonial action which may have been litigated and/or settled.  Issues and factual matters may have been raised in such cases which could impact upon Surrogate’s Court proceedings and the settlement of a decedent’s estate.  As a threshold matter, a divorce would sever and terminate most spousal and inheritance rights between the parties.  Also, matrimonial litigation might disclose the nature and value of assets which may be a part of a decedent’s estate.  These facts might impact both probate proceedings and intestate administration proceedings.

An example of the impact a pending divorce might have on estate administration was recently shown in a Bronx estate case entitled Estate of Wood decided by Bronx Surrogate Nelida Malave-Gozalez on February 3, 2023.  In Wood, the decedent and his spouse had entered into a stipulation of settlement with regard to a pending divorce action.  The stipulation was fully executed.  However, before a judgment of divorce was entered in the divorce action, the decedent died.  One of the primary issues which was presented to the Court was whether the terms of the stipulation were enforceable notwithstanding the death of the decedent.  This was an issue because the basic rule is that the death of a party abates a divorce action unless the entry of the judgment was only a ministerial act to be completed by the Court.

The Surrogate in Wood found that the ministerial act exception was not applicable in this case.  The Court also pointed out that the stipulation contained a provision whereby the parties essentially waived all rights to inherit from each other except in a limited circumstance.

While it was argued that the decedent’s death before the entry of the divorce judgment negated the stipulation, the Surrogate held that the stipulation was an enforceable contract notwithstanding the decedent’s death and the termination of the divorce action due to abatement.  Thus, the waiver of the surviving spouse’s interest in the decedent’s estate as provided in the settlement was enforceable.

As demonstrated by Wood, Surrogate’s Court litigation, the administration of an estate and the rights of beneficiaries can be very complicated.  The guidance of an experienced estate lawyer can be essential to resolving these complex matters.  I have been representing clients in estate cases throughout New York for over 40 years.  Do you have a question regarding an estate or Surrogate’s Court case?  Call me NOW for a free review of your issue.  We provide reasonable and flexible fee arrangements and personal representation.

New York Trusts and Estates Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 40 years resolve issues relating to guardianship and probate and estate settlement throughout New York City including the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau and Suffolk County.  If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial free consultation.

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