International Policy and Estate Planning: Foreign Distributees in the Crosshairs

Article 16 of the New York’s Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act deals with foreign estates.  The legislative purpose for the enactment of the procedure with respect to foreign estates includes the following:  “If the law of such jurisdiction does not provide for the appointment of a fiduciary but vests the property of a decedent in a person or persons subject to the obligation to pay the decedent’s debts and expenses and the legacies bequeathed in his will or the distributive shares provided by law, such a person shall be recognized as the person acting therein to administer the decedent’s estate in accordance with the law thereof, but only if such person has complied with all the requirements of such jurisdiction to entitle him to receive the property of the decedent and is acting or will act there to administer the estate“ (underlining my own).  What may seem to be at first glance a benign statement can yield unanticipated complications, particularly if foreign policy is diametrically opposed to the wishes of the testator.

In re Estate of Gyfteas, 59 Misc. 2d 977, 300 N.Y.S.2d 913, 1968 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 993 (Surrogate’s Court of New York, New York County December 12, 1968), the testator was a Greek citizen and domiciliary who owned property in New York.  His Will named three executors and devised some monetary bequests, with the residuary going to charity.  Since the decedent did not have a valid New York Will, an administration proceeding was begun by one of the executors for the property in New York.  Then the legatees filed a separate petition for letters of administration for the New York property claiming that the executors had no right to distribute the New York-based assets.

N.Y. Surr. Ct. Proc. Act § 1604(1) establishes a priority list as to the granting of ancillary letters with respect to a foreign testator’s property in New York:

(a) The person expressly appointed in the will as executor with respect to property located within this state.

(b) The person to whom domiciliary letters have been issued or if domiciliary letters are not issued, the person appointed in the will to administer all property wherever located.

(c) The person acting in the domiciliary jurisdiction to administer and distribute the testator’s estate.

(d) A person entitled under this act to letters of administration c.t.a.

Since the Will was a Greek Will, the New York court looked to the law of Greece to determine whether the named executors in the Will had the authority under SCPA § 1604 to qualify for ancillary letters.  A hearing was held on this issue.  Under Greek law, where a Will contains a charitable bequest, only the executor may distribute the assets.  Where there are no charitable bequests, the powers of the executor are subordinate to those of the legatee(s).  Citing Greek law, experts for both the petitioners and the respondents agreed on this point.  Thus, under New York law and the priorities established under SCPA § 1604(1), the executor under the Greek Will was granted ancillary letters in preference to the legatees.  However, the court stipulated that no assets from New York could be moved to Greece without further order of the court and notice to the legatees.

In part, this result was possible because the United States has diplomatic relations with Greece.  But what happens when the legatees reside in a country where State Department regulations circumscribe what the courts may do?

In re Estate of Mitzkel, 36 Misc. 2d 671, 233 N.Y.S.2d 519, 1962 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2467 (Surrogate’s Court of New York, Kings County October 15, 1962 ), the decedent, a New York resident of Lithuanian descent, left his New York estate to his two sisters, both citizens and residents of Lithuania.  At the time, Lithuania had been annexed by the Soviet Union.   The Consul General of Lithuania at New York filed a petition in Surrogate’s Court on behalf of the Lithuanian nationals.  Thereafter, the sisters were transported 500 miles from Lithuania to Moscow where they executed a power of attoney before the U.S. Consul in Moscow appointing a New York law firm to represent them in Surrogate’s Court.   Based on this power of attorney, the Soviet government had  hired attorneys in New York to represent the interests of the sisters.  These attorneys then filed a notice of appearance with the court.   The Consul General of Lithuania then filed a motion seeking to have declared as invalid the sisters’ power of attorney executed to the Soviet government and the notice of appearance by their attorneys.

At issue was the validity of the power of attorney.  Several factors pointed to the illegitimacy of the Soviet power of attorney.  First, the instrument stated that the sisters lived in the U.S.S.R instead of Lithuania.  Second, the sisters were illiterate and could not have understood the contents of the power of attorney.  Third, the sisters had been forced the travel from their homes under duress by Soviet officials.  Fourth, the services of the law firm had been illegally procured by an agent of the Soviet Union, namely a lawyers’ collective called the “Iniurcolleguia” and described as being “an essential force in subjecting the common people of Russia to the dictator’s power” (Wash. U. L. Q., supra, June, 1958, p. 252), and “tools of the State” (48 Cal. L. Rev., supra, pp. 794-795).  In the instant case, the goal of the Soviet lawyers’ collective was to extract fees from the sisters to be deposited into a common treasury used to pay these Soviet lawyers.

The United States never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) into the Soviet Union.  In a letter dates March 26, 1948, the State Department had cautioned each State governor not to give access to the Surrogate’s Court (or its State equivalent) to any Soviet officials or their attorneys for the settling of estates of decedents from Baltic States dying in the U.S.  The Surrogate’s Court found this sufficient to declare the Soviet power of attorney invalid as well as the notice of appearance by the New York attorneys representing  the “Iniurcolleguia.”

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