There are many different proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court. Such matters include the following: probate proceedings, administration proceedings, accounting proceedings, and kinship hearings to name a few. It is not uncommon in these cases for there to be estate litigation or controversies regarding the issues being presented to the Court. For example, when a Last Will and Testament is being offered for probate it is possible that an interested party may contest the Will.
Similarly, when a person dies intestate and someone files an administration proceeding to be appointed as the estate administrator, questions may arise as to the kinship of the decedent. There may even be a necessity to hold a kinship hearing to resolve this question. There may also be a dispute as to which family member should be appointed as the administrator. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many articles regarding probate and administration matters and various types of Surrogate’s Court litigation.
The vast majority of contested and litigated matters in the Court are ultimately settled between the interested parties. New York Civil Practice Law and Rules Section 2104 entitled “Stipulations” contains requirements for stipulations to be enforceable. Settlements are favored by the Court and are usually advantageous to the individuals involved in a case. There are many reasons that favor a negotiated settlement. First and foremost, the outcome of litigation is typically uncertain. Therefore, rather than risk an all or nothing approach, each side ultimately accepts a resolution that provides them with a benefit although somewhat less than what might have been received if the case was ultimately won. This avoids the risk of a total loss. Also, Court proceedings can be exceedingly lengthy. The time for a matter to progress through the judicial system can take years. Sometimes it is better to accept an early resolution rather than wait for an extended period of time to reach an uncertain result. Estate settlement may be delayed.
As noted earlier in this post, the Courts encourage the parties to engage in settlement talks and will make certain settlement agreements are enforced. This is because a premium is placed upon ending litigation. The Surrogate or the Court attorney assigned to a case will meet with the parties and try to obtain a compromise. There may even be Court recommended mediators who have all the parties meet to talk about a possible resolution. Recently, I represented a party where there were competing claims for the appointment of the estate administrator. We were able to solve this issue through mediation.
While there are occasions where a Court may void a settlement or deem it unenforceable, these situations are rare. Essentially, it must be demonstrated that the parties were somehow misled or made a material mistake or the agreement was entered into without authority. A party will usually be bound by his agreement unless good cause is shown to revoke or change it. Thus, it is important to make certain that any settlement includes all of the terms and conditions that are vital to protect a party’s interests.
Stipulations and agreements may concern the ultimate resolution of a case or just a procedural issue such as the date for a trial or deposition or an issue as to the evidence to be presented by the parties. A recent Manhattan estate case decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on March 5, 2020 entitled Matter of Estate of Hassine concerned an application to vacate pre-trial stipulations entered into by the parties.
In Hassine, proceedings were pending in the Court to settle the account of the estate executor and also to have the executor removed and a new fiduciary appointed. The parties had previously entered into stipulations concerning a statement of facts and issues. One of the parties sought to vacate the stipulations claiming that they were entered into by mistake because they believed their prior attorney had made certain changes to the stipulation which were never incorporated into the final agreement.
The Court refused to vacate the stipulation on this ground since the claim of mistake was vague and the issue could have been resolved earlier. The Court noted that good cause to void the stipulation was not demonstrated. It was also found that the prior attorneys had the requisite authority to enter into the stipulation.
As an estate litigation attorney, I have facilitated many resolutions for my clients’ benefit by stipulation and settlement. Negotiating these agreements can be complex but the result can be beneficial to all the parties involved. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to continue litigation to protect someone’s rights. I will not hesitate to vigorously do so. Call me now for a free review of your estate case. 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.