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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The Carvel Soft-Serve Empire: Avoiding an Estate Meltdown

When I was growing up, one of my favorite treats was a Carvel chocolate-dipped vanilla soft-serve cone.  And no birthday party was complete without a Carvel ice cream cake.  Tom Carvel was able to parlay my sweet tooth and millions of others into an empire at one time valued at $250 million.  When he died in 1990, he left behind his wife, the former Agnes Stewart, who had once loaned her future husband $15 to begin his ice cream business.  It proved to be a spectacular investment.

Tom Carvel owed his spectacular good fortune to a flat tire.  When Carvel began his business in Hartsdale, New York in 1929, he used a truck to bring his homemade confection to his clients.  One day, a tire blew in the proximity of a pottery store parking lot.   With his ice cream quickly melting, Carvel decided to start selling right from his parked truck.  Thus began the idea for soft serve ice cream, which Carvel refined over time.  He then worked out a deal with the pottery store so that he could sell his ice cream in the parking lot by running an electrical wire to keep his confection refrigerated.  His sales took off.

In 1936 Carvel purchased the pottery store and formed the Carvel Brand Corporation.  Carvel realized that there was money to be made from real estate as well.  Having established a successful business model, Carvel proceeded to map out a plan to franchise his business.  As part of his franchising model, Carvel purchased the properties upon which his franchisee’s store would be located, leasing back the space to the franchisee as part of the license agreement.  Thus the expansion of the Carvel brand also meant the expansion of the Carvel real estate holdings.

A known control freak, Carvel fought for years with the Federal Trade Commission against antitrust charges.  He required his franchisees to attend a three-month intensive training program, and the purchase of all supplies were to come directly from the Carvel Brand Corporation.  While this mentality may have served him well in business, the Will that he executed reflected his need to control from the grave.  The Will became the fodder for controversy and chaos.

His estate planning needs were relatively simple.  He and Agnes had no children, and his intent was to provide for Agnes during her lifetime and after her death the estate would go to charity.  There were several simple ways to accomplish this.  One way would have been to purchase a non-probate asset, such as an annuity, with Agnes as the beneficiary.  She could then have received structured payments immediately after his death.

By naming a disinterested executor (he would instead name seven interested executors), such as a bank or law firm, Carvel could have assured the continuity needed to administer his large postmortem estate without controversy.  And while there are fees associated with this option, it may be a wiser course of action than the litigation costs associated with squabbling executors and beneficiaries.

His Will would still have provided for the statutory spousal elective share.  Under New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) § 5-1.1, a surviving spouse has the option of taking the the greater of $50,000 -or- 1/3 of the net estate.

The rest of the estate could have been given to charity through an irrevocable charitable remainder trust. §664 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as amended provides for either the payment of a fixed amount through a charitable remainder annuity trust (§664(d)(1)(D)), or a percentage of trust principal through a charitable remainder unitrust (§664(d)(2)(D)).  Carvel would have received two immediate benefits.  He could have claimed a charitable income tax deduction.  And given his sizable real estate portfolio, the estate would not have had to pay immediate capital gains taxes as the trust disposed of the trust property in its portfolio.

What Tom Carvel left behind instead when he died of a heart attack in 1990 was a chaotic estate.  Nine years later, the estate was still in litigation.  A lawsuit filed by his niece Pamela Carvel against the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation in 1999 before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (188 F.3d 83 (2nd Cir. 1999)) revealed that Tom and Agnes had executed “mirror wills,” or two separate but identical Wills, each naming the Foundation as the beneficiary of their entire residuary estate.  At the same time, they executed a reciprocal agreement agreeing to refrain from changing their Wills or making certain transfers.

In addition to the Foundation, Carvel had created at least five other entities:  a Florida trust for his wife, a charitable remainder unitrust, two real estate holding companies, and the estate created by the mirror Will containing the statutory spousal election share and bequests to 83 different beneficiaries.

A year before his death, Tom Carvel sold his 700 stores to Middle East investors for a reported $80 million.  In the years following his death, a good portion of that sum was spent on litigation over the estate.  His widow Agnes, one of seven named original executors of his estate,  stepped down as executor and Foundation board member and fled to London in the wake of a call for a capacity hearing.  She died in London in 1998, having herself litigated against the estate to received the $600,000 quarterly payments stipulated in her husband’s Will.  A well thought-out estate plan could have avoided this strife and achieved Tom Carvel’s postmortem goals.

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