Oral Communications with a Decedent May Be Allowed to Prove an Oral Contract

nycSurrogatesEstate settlement may involve complex issues regarding a decedent.  Many of the articles appearing in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog discuss issues concerning the probate of a Last Will and Testament or the appointment of an administrator of an intestate estate.  Probate and administration proceedings can take many months and involve Will contests, kinship determinations and disputes regarding the qualifications of a possible executor or administrator.

It should be recognized that the appointment of an estate fiduciary is just one phase involved in settling an estate.  Once a fiduciary takes office, there are many other issues which may need to be resolved.  These matters may involve extensive Surrogate’s Court litigation or disputes which are filed in other Courts.  Such controversies may involve claims against a decedent arising out of a business or creditor claims.

An interesting dispute emanating from an estate was recently the subject of a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court.  Castellotti v. Free was a lawsuit in which the decedent (the parties’ mother) died, leaving a substantial estate.  Before death, it appears that the decedent’s son was involved in a divorce.  The decedent, who disliked the son’s spouse and wanted to prevent the spouse from sharing in any part of the decedent’s estate, took part in an oral arrangement whereby the decedent changed her Will to leave her entire estate to her daughter.  There was an oral agreement whereby after the divorce was completed, the daughter would transfer 50% of the mother’s estate assets and proceeds to her brother.  While there were additional terms to the oral agreement, the 50/50 arrangement was the centerpiece of the oral contract.  As can be anticipated, after the mother’s death, the daughter allegedly failed to comply with the oral agreement and failed to transfer estate assets to her brother.  As a result, the brother commenced a lawsuit against his sister to enforce the oral agreement.

In the current Castellotti decision by Supreme Court Justice James E. d’Auguste, dated May 8, 2023, the Court was presented with various pretrial motions.  Among the motions was an application to exclude various oral communications between the plaintiff son and others and the deceased mother regarding the oral contract.

The Court recognized the evidence prohibitions concerning communications with a deceased person set out in CPLR 4519 entitled “Personal transaction or communication between witness and decedent or mentally ill person,” commonly referred to as the Dead Man’s Statute.  This statute prevents oral and other such hearsay communications with a decedent from being submitted as evidence at trial.  Upon analysis, the Court found the statute may not be applicable in the present situation since the dispute did not involve a challenge to the terms of a Will.  Moreover, the Court recognized that since the son’s claims were based, in part, in equity, the Court had greater discretion to allow such hearsay conversations involving the deceased mother and her motivations in leaving the entire estate to the daughter.  The Court refused to exclude various communications or transactions with the deceased mother including hearsay conversations.

As can be seen from Castellotti, estate matters and issues can be very complicated and involve unique circumstances.  The assistance of an experienced estate lawyer may be essential.  Do you have a question regarding an estate or a guardianship matter?  Call Me Now for a free confidential review of your problem.  We offer 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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