Posts Categorized: MA Probate Court

Consolidated Matters: Hanna v. Williams, et. al. & Berkowtiz, et. al. v. Williams, et. al.

By, Glynis Ritchie, Esq. of Day Pitney LLP 

The conduct of two estate planning attorneys, in addition to a financial advisor, are under scrutiny in the consolidated matters, Hanna v. Williams, et. al., Superior Court No. 1684CV 0722 BLS 1 and Berkowtiz, et. al. v. Williams, et. al., Superior Court No. 1684CV 0724 BLS 1.  Both matters involve the same estate planning attorneys and financial advisor defendants.  In its recent memorandum and order, the Superior Court ruled on the defendants’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim for (i) tortious interference with an expectancy (with respect to an inheritance); (ii) violations of G.L. c. 93A, § 9; and (iii) civil conspiracy, among other claims.  The Court also addressed its jurisdiction over these probate-related matters.

The decision sets out a variety of colorful facts, alleged in the plaintiffs’ complaints and outlined in detail by the Court, calling into question the defendants’ conduct. The matters concern the execution of an estate plan by an 91-year-old client, then hospitalized, immediately prior to her death in 2013.  The 2013 estate plan consisted of a will and trust, the terms of which differed significantly from the decedent’s prior will, executed in 1961.  According to facts alleged, the new documents included provisions leaving nearly $2 million dollars to the decedent’s financial advisor; the drafting attorneys’ firm was named as trustee for resulting long-term family trusts (despite the two attorneys not having met the client prior to the signing conference). According to the plaintiffs, the attorneys and financial advisor were the only individuals present at the deathbed signing conference, and, at the time, the decedent was heavily medicated.  Upon returning to their firm, the attorneys requested an administrative assistant notarize the decedent’s signature, despite the assistant not having been present at the signing conference.  The decedent died six days after the new documents were executed; following her death, the would-be beneficiaries of the 1961 will raised alarm.

A petition for probate of the 2013 will was then filed in the Essex County Probate and Family Court.  In the following months and years, extensive litigation took place regarding the validity of the 1961 and 2013 wills.  The parties of the probate court matter eventually entered into a Compromise Agreement approved by the probate court. Pursuant to that Agreement, the beneficiaries under the 1961 will received a percentage of what they would have been entitled to under the 1961 estate plan.  The Agreement did not establish the validity of either will, but it did provide that legal fees (then totaling approximately $1,240,000) be paid by the Estate.  The would-be beneficiaries of the 1961 will, and the personal representative of the decedent’s Estate, then brought actions in Superior Court for recovery of monetary damages and legal fees.

In addressing the question of jurisdiction, the Superior Court analyzed the standard for making a claim for tortious interference with an expectancy.  The tort, which is recognized in Massachusetts, requires proof that “but for” the interference, a plaintiff would have received something (for example, additional inheritance).  A plaintiff need not prove that a particular will is invalid, but merely that the procuring of the will in question was a tortious act.  Furthermore, there may be recovery notwithstanding a prior will admitted to probate.

Defendants argued that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to hear such a claim because the claim was, at its heart, a will contest; will contests, the defendants furthered, are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the probate court. The Court disagreed.  It clarified that, despite defendants’ argument, this is not a will contest, but a separate tort claim.  The probate court does not have jurisdiction to decide such actions for money damages.  As such, if the Superior Court also lacked jurisdiction to hear such a matter, the plaintiffs would have no adequate remedy.  On this basis, the Court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Court then held that the plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for intentional interference.  In setting aside defendants’ argument that they knew nothing of the 1961 will (and therefore could not have intentionally denied anyone an expectancy), the Court clarified that such a claim requires only that the defendants intentionally interfere with an expectancy, not that they knew the scope or details of the expectancy in question.  A valid claim is established where there was a reasonable likelihood of expectancy, and defendants’ conduct caused the persons affected to settle a lawsuit for less than what those individuals would otherwise have received.  The facts here, the Court found, are sufficient to sustain such a claim.

The Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the would-be beneficiaries’ claim of professional negligence (because the defendants owed no duty of care to the would-be heirs) but denied their motion with respect to the alleged violations of G.L. c. 93A, § 9 and civil conspiracy, among others.  In doing so, the court cleared the way for this already extensively litigated matter to continue on its path toward an ultimate resolution.

Essex County Probate & Family Court Event @ 5/9/16 – E-Filing Seminar

Topic: The Essex Division of the Probate and Family Court Department will be holding a seminar on the e-filing pilot program of Estate and Administration cases.

When: Monday, May 9th at 4PM

Where: The Essex Probate and Family Court, 45 Congress St., Salem, MA. 01970

Description:  A representative from Tyler Group, the vendor of the new e-filing system, will be conducting this seminar and will be available to answer any question attendees might have on registration and use of the Tyler e-Filing Attorney Portal.   All members of the bar are welcome.

In the Matter of the Estate of William E. Weaver

By Amanda L. MacGee, J.D. of Burns & Levinson LLP

In Estate of Weaver (Case 15-P-714) (March 2, 2016), three siblings appealed an order of the Probate and Family Court. The Weaver siblings were children of the decedent’s first marriage.  During the decedent’s second marriage he and his wife executed reciprocal Wills, leaving their estates to each other, with the decedent’s step-daughter as the alternate recipient.  In challenging the Will, the siblings claim undue influence as well as alcohol and drug use by the decedent and his second wife as factors.  Decedent’s second wife predeceased him and he did not change his Will prior to his death leaving his entire estate to his step-daughter on his death.

The Appeals Court affirmed the decision of the Probate and Family Court, striking the decedent’s children’s affidavits of objection to his Will. The court found that had his Will been influenced by his deceased wife and estranged step-daughter, enough time had passed in which he could have changed his Will if he so desired.

Regarding the accusations of drug and alcohol abuse, the Appeals Court found there was no evidence that the decedent was under the influence when he executed his Will or the he did not understand its contents. The Appeals Court further found the decedent was in contact with his children after his wife’s death, and that he was aware of the terms of his Will.  The court found “ample opportunity” to update his Will, if he so desired.

Middlesex and Essex Probate Courts Announce New Procedures for Informal Probate Petitions

Below is a Press Release from Middlesex Probate Court and a Memorandum from the Essex Probate Court on their new procedures relating to Informal Probate Petitions:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Date: July 9, 2014

From: Tara DeCristofaro, Register of the Middlesex Probate and Family Court

Re: New “Walk-In” Procedure for Estate Administration Informal Petitions

Contact: Jack Twomey, Administrative Deputy Assistant Register, 617-768-5995

MIDDLESEX DIVISION OF THE PROBATE AND FAMILY COURT OFFERS NEW FAST

LANE PROCEDURE FOR INFORMAL PETITIONS

Tara E. DeCristofaro, Register of the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, has announced that she will be piloting a walk-in session for informal petitions. The walk-in session will be available in the Registry every Tuesday afternoon from 12:00 pm. – 3:00 pm., beginning August 5, 2014. If the program is well received, plans are to expand it to multiple days per week.

“I am hopeful that this new procedure will assist the bar and self-represented litigants by dramatically reducing the wait time to informally appoint a personal representative or probate a will in estate administration cases.” said DeCristofaro.

To take advantage of this program, the informal packet must be complete and include all the necessary documents and filing fees. “You are advised to visit the Probate and Family Court MUPC Hub at www.mass.gov/courts to review the checklist of required documents under the informal procedure and to consult the MUPC Estate Administration Procedural Guide for answers to frequently asked procedural questions. “This program is structured to speed up the wait times for informal petitions. Accordingly, we ask that participants in this walk-in service present a complete packet for allowance. Those with questions should use the public probate counter.” said DeCristofaro.

Upon successful review, consumers will be issued an Informal Order and Letter(s) of Appointment before leaving the Registry. If there are any issues with the informal packet, consumers will be instructed on what is necessary to complete the packet and be asked to return at the next available date, or if necessary, be advised of other procedural options if an informal proceeding is unavailable.

“I have heard what court users have said and have committed resources to create an informal process as envisioned by the statute. This is one in a number of initiatives my office will be making over the next year to improve the court users’ experience.”

 

MEMORANDUM

TO:  Users of the Essex Probate and Family Court

FROM:  Pamela Casey O’Brien, Register of Probate

DATE:  September 11, 2014

SUBJECT:  Informal Probate Filings

To better serve our customers there will be a Magistrate sitting in the Lawrence Registry of Probate on Wednesdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to assist with the procession and allowance of Informal Probate Petitions.

Thank you for your attention to this matter”