All Not in the Family? The Dead Man’s Statute and Pedigree Declarations

At times Wills contest expose deep family secrets. There are even cases where the revelation of the secret leaves even more tantalizing questions unanswered. Such is the case of In the Matter of the Estate of Esther T., 86 Misc. 2d 452; 382 N.Y.S.2d 916 (1976), where a son’s use of an exception to the Dead Man’s Statute led to an unexpected result.

One exception to the Dead Man’s Statute in New York is a pedigree declaration. Pedigree declarations, or statements regarding one’s parentage, are admissible in probate proceedings. These declarations necessarily include conversations held by the person testifying with the decedent, something the statute seeks to eliminate because the decedent is unavailable to testify on these same facts.

In In the Matter of the Estate of Esther T. ,the Surrogate’s Court of New York, Nassau County, heard testimony from a contestant, the decedent’s purported son, to the admission of a Will to probate by the proponent, the decedent’s purported husband. According to the contestant, he was the sole child of the decedent and her “purported” husband George M. “Of necessity, proof of pedigree must be based upon hearsay. The issue of lineage rarely comes into question when all of the parties who could testify are available to testify. The necessary foundation for the admission of pedigree declarations is as follows: (1) the declarant is dead; (2) the declarant was related by blood or affinity to the family concerning which he speaks; (3) the declarations were made ante litem motam” Id., at 455. While pedigree declarations are admissible in evidence, the trier of fact must still weight these declarations to determine their truthfulness.

To support his claim, the contestant also submitted the testimony of the decedent’s younger siblings, a brother and a sister. The brother testified that his sister had been born in Brooklyn, NY in 1904 and was about 70 years of age at the time of her death. He further testified that her maiden name was Esther Do, but that she was also known as Estelle Do or Du. In 1928 or 1929, she had married George M, a real estate broker and traveling salesman of novelties, a profession that required frequent out-of-state travel. He was often accompanied by his wife. Esther conducted a tax preparation business from her husband’s real estate office. Over objection, the brother testified that Esther has told him that the contestant was her son.

The sister, an attorney, testified that her law office was located close to her deceased sister’s home and that she saw her sister frequently. She further testified of her sister’s pregnancy in 1946, and that in December of 1946 her sister and George M had closed their office had gone to Florida. She had learned of the birth of her nephew from George M.

It is clear from the record that Esther suffered at least one miscarriage. At issue was whether she ever experienced a live birth and whether the contestant was indeed her son. Conflicting evidence on this point was presented to the court. George M conceded that the contestant had been held out as the son of the deceased and himself. However, he also testified that the contestant was neither the natural nor the adopted son of the deceased and thus should not be a distributee under the Will. To support this claim, he submitted a certified hospital record from North Shore Hospital dated 29 May 1970 containing Esther’s medical history that stated she had experienced one miscarriage and no live children, as well as her blood transfusion record that indicated her blood type was O-RH +.

George M also submitted into evidence a certified copy of a hospital record dated 5 March 1947 from the Atlantic City Medical Center for a certain Estelle Du. Her blood type was AB-RH +. Estelle had given birth there to a child whose footprint was part of the hospital record. Upon recross-examination, the contestant admitted that his blood type was A+.

Because blood typing cannot change, the court determined that the contestant was not the son of the deceased and George M. He was the son of Estelle Du who was 19 years old at the time of his birth, while Esther was 43 years old at the time of his birth. As such, he was not a distributee under the decedent’s Will.

Interestingly, the court noted that George M had not submitted any proof that he was the decedent’s surviving spouse and thus the decedent’s sole distributee. He was ordered to produce proof of his marriage to Esther within 10 days. Absent this proof, Esther’s surviving brother and sister and any children of predeceased siblings would become distributees under the Will if admitted to probate, or intestate heirs should the Will not be admitted to probate.

While pedigree declarations are an exception under New York’s Dead Man’s Statute, they are not automatically admitted as true statements. As the Matter of the Estate of Esther T illustrates, pedigree declarations can sometimes open a Pandora’s box of closely held family secrets.

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