Asserting Rights Obtained through Inheritance from a Foreign Decedent

In New York, individuals who wish to assert rights obtained through inheritance from a foreign decedent without first obtaining the required documentation may likely find that they do not have standing to pursue their claims in New York courts without first obtaining required letters or filing an affidavit. While this additional proof does not guarantee standing, it does allow for the presentation of a more complete record to be made upon which the court can make a determination of standing.

In 1935, Paul von Mendelssohn–Bartholdy, a descendant of the composer Felix Mendelsshon and a member of a prominent German Jewish family, was forced to sell under duress a Picasso painting “The Absinthe Drinker (Angel Ferdinand de Soto)” to the Nazis.  In 1995, Sotheby’s sold the painting to The Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation at an open auction.  The Foundation then sought to sell the painting in 2006 at auction at Christie’s in New York. Julius Schoeps, a German national and a great-nephew of Bartholdy and an heir to 12.5% of the estate, filed suit against the Foundation in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking temporary restraining orders to stop the sale of the painting and preventing the Foundation from taking the painting out of the United States (Schoeps v. Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, 66 A.D.3d 137, 884 N.Y.S.2d 396, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 06155)

For its part, the Foundation claimed that Schoeps lacked standing in New York to pursue his claim because he had not been appointed a personal representative of the estate pursuant to Estates, Powers and Trusts Law §§ 11–3.2(b) and 13–3.5.  Schoeps argued that, under German law, ownership rights vest immediately in the heirs, making the appointment of a personal representative of the estate unnecessary.

Section 11–3.2(b) of the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law provides, in pertinent part, that an action for injury to person or property belonging to a decedent may be maintained by a personal representative of the decedent.  EPTL 13–3.5(a)(1) provides that a personal representative of a foreign decedent who seeks to maintain a cause of action in New York must, within 10 days after commencing the action, file a copy of the letters issued to the representative, duly authenticated as prescribed by CPLR 4542. If the action is not brought by a personal representative, the individual is required to submit an affidavit setting forth the facts which authorize him to act for the decedent, along with such other proof as the court may require.

For his part, Schoeps relied on an outlier case, Roques v. Grosjean, that was nonetheless on point.  (Roques v. Grosjean, 66 N.Y.S.2d 348, [Sup. Ct., N.Y. County 1946]).  Roques remains the only New York decision holding that letters are not needed by a nonresident to maintain a cause of action in New York, when the law of the plaintiff’s domicile vests title to personal property in the heirs at the time of death. Such was the case for Schoeps.  The Roques court had based its holding in part on a Ninth Circuit decision in California, holding that the public administrator was not a necessary party to an action for fraud by the heirs of a French resident and California property owner (see Anglo California Natl. Bank of San Francisco v. Lazard, 106 F.2d 693 [1939], cert. denied 308 U.S. 624, 60 S.Ct. 379, 84 L.Ed. 521 [1939] ).  However, the Ninth Circuit added a footnote that laid out the appropriate method for an heir to a French estate to establish his/her standing, namely by filing all testamentary instruments with a Notary, and then having the Notary execute a written instrument known as an “acte de notariété” (id. at 699 n. 2). A proceeding before a French Notary was still necessary for standing.

In Schoeps, the court denied Schoeps standing to pursue his claim against the Foundation because he had not complied with the procedures set out in either Estates, Powers and Trusts Law §§ 11–3.2(b) or 13–3.5.

Schoeps and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation reached an out-of-court settlement that allowed the foundation to retain ownership of the painting and to be free to sell the work.  On 23 June 2010, the painting was sold at auction for £34.7 million.

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