On Its Own Motion

by Farrell Fritz, P.C.
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While most decisions rendered by the Surrogate’s Court result from an affirmative request for relief, occasionally the court will address an issue on its own motion when justice or the exercise of its inherent or statutory power requires. One of the better known instances in which the Surrogate’s Court undertook this role was Stortecky v. Mazzone, 85 NY2d 518 (1995), a case that addressed the court’s inherent authority to fix and determine legal fees. This post examines two recent opinions wherein the Surrogate’s Court, again, acted on its own initiative to achieve what it considered the proper result.

SCPA 1408 and the Duty to Admit a Valid Will to Probate

In In re Friedman, NYLJ, Mar. 13, 2017, at 22, the Surrogate’s Court, New York County, was confronted with two petitions requesting the admission to probate of a purported will of the decedent, dated April 5, 2011. The initial petition was filed by the nominated executor under the instrument and objections to probate were filed by the decedent’s daughter. Thereafter, the daughter withdrew her objections to probate, and filed a cross-petition for probate requesting that she, and not the nominated executor, be appointed fiduciary.

Despite the absence of objections to probate, the court noted several deficiencies on the face of the instrument, as well as evidence in the record that created “serious” concerns regarding its execution and the decedent’s testamentary capacity. More specifically, the court observed that the instrument arguably failed to dispose of any testamentary property, that the decedent’s name was misspelled, and that while the instrument contained a detailed listing of over 30 stock holdings and accounts, a year before the execution date, the decedent had been found by an examining psychiatrist to have cognitive limitations, and was unaware of his income.

In view thereof, and in accord with the provisions of SCPA 1408(1), the court scheduled a hearing in order to satisfy itself as to the genuineness of the propounded will and the validity of its execution. Petitioner, who was the only witness to testify, stated that the decedent drafted and typed the instrument, and later executed the document, without the supervision of an attorney, in the presence of two of petitioner’s friends. No explanation was given regarding the discrepancies in the instrument, or to mitigate the court’s concerns about the decedent’s mental capacity. Moreover, no explanation was provided as to the reference in the instrument to a date and event that occurred after the date of its execution, and the existence of the pre-typed names and addresses of the witnesses, despite petitioner’s contention that the decedent had never met them prior to the will being signed.

Accordingly, based on the foregoing, and the record as a whole, the court held that it was not satisfied that the will was valid, and denied the petition and cross-petition for its probate.

Surcharge of Fiduciary, Sua Sponte

Because a fiduciary is presumptively entitled to statutory commissions, an objectant in a contested accounting proceeding generally has the burden of demonstrating that fiduciary commissions should be denied. In In re Colt, NYLJ, Apr. 14, 2017, at 22 (Sur. Ct. New York County), the court seemingly deviated from this rule when it exercised its authority to review sua sponte the fiduciary’s commissions as executor and trustee.

Before the court were contested accountings of the fiduciary as executor of the decedent’s estate and successor trustee of a revocable trust created by the decedent in 2006. Following the dismissal of certain objections and the withdrawal of others, the court held a hearing on the remaining issue of the legal fees payable to the fiduciary’s counsel. The record at the hearing revealed that much of the work performed by counsel related to conflicting claims to the assets of the estate and trust. More specifically, it appeared that in 2004, the decedent had executed a pour over will and revocable trust into which he transferred his condominium and brokerage account. Two years later, he executed the subject 2006 trust, as well as a new will, which, again, contained a direction that his residuary estate pour over into the trust. The 2004 trust and 2006 trust essentially had the same legatees, however, the beneficiaries of the decedent’s residuary estate differed.

Significantly, the draftsperson of both wills and trusts was the fiduciary, who was the decedent’s estate planning attorney. Of equal note was the fiduciary’s acknowledgment that the decedent intended his assets to pass pursuant to the 2006 trust, and his admission that he failed to have the decedent revoke the 2004 trust and fund the 2006 trust with the assets with which the 2006 trust had been funded. Although the controversy regarding the rightful owners of these assets was settled, the court found that the decedent’s estate had a claim against the fiduciary for the legal fees incurred to resolve the trust issues that were created from his failure to properly advise the decedent. Indeed, regardless of whether the statute of limitations on any claim for malpractice had expired, or whether fiduciary had been shielded from claims based upon the privity doctrine, the court concluded that the fiduciary’s duty as executor required that he make the estate whole for the legal fees resulting from his negligence. His failure to fulfill this duty was exacerbated by his affirmative approval of the considerable legal fees incurred, which he apparently made no attempts to control.

In view thereof, the court held that the fiduciary had demonstrated a gross neglect of his duty and a substantial disregard of the rights of the beneficiaries warranting a denial of his commissions both as executor and trustee.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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