ALBANY – An appeals court has deferred to a surrogate who ruled that a woman was not under the undue influence of others when she disinherited her three nephews in a new will and bequeathed $100,000 for the care of “Kissie Meouw,” her cat.
The attorney who drew up the new will in 2007 indicated that Charlotte Stafford was “very aware” and “alert” as they worked on the revisions together, the Appellate Division, Third Department said in Matter of Stafford, 516429.
Attorney Thomas Emerson of Norwich said he explained to Stafford the effect of the changes she requested and she told him, “That’s what I want,” according to the ruling.
“By all accounts, decedent was a very intelligent, private and strong-willed woman who ‘ran her life the way she wanted to run it,’” Justice John Egan Jr. (See Profile) wrote for a unanimous panel.
The court added that Emerson “did not observe any evidence of undue influence with respect to the execution of the various instruments or the dispositions contained within.”
Emerson’s conclusions about Stafford’s competency were confirmed by the paralegal who accompanied him to Stafford’s home in Oxford, Chenango County, in August 2007 and witnessed her signature on the revised will, according to the court.
Stafford had made three earlier wills, none of which mentioned the cat. The documents called for Stafford’s three nephews, Richard Stafford, David Stafford and James Stafford to share equally from the estate, although the versions in February 1997 and January 2007 designated $67,000 and $81,000, respectively, for donations to charities.
In addition to disinheriting her three nephews, Charlotte Stafford designated that $300,000 be used to maintain her ancestral home. The home, in turn, was to be held in trust for the benefit of the Town of Oxford to be used for historical research and preservation purposes, according to the will.
Stafford directed that $100,000 be placed in a pet trust for the benefit of her cat, identified in court papers as “Kissie Meouw Stafford.” The trust, which also included funds for the maintenance of the Stafford home, will terminate upon Kissie’s death or the passage of 21 years after Charlotte Stafford’s death, according to her will.
Stafford’s friend, housemate and care-giver, Vicky House, was designated as Kissie’s caretaker, according to the will, and allowed to live in the Stafford home rent-free for as long as she acted in the cat caretaker capacity.
Emerson testified that Stafford changed her will in August 2007 to demonstrate her commitment to historical preservation and also because she complained that her nephews’ “heart[s]” are “ in their pocketbooks,” according to the ruling.
Stafford had diabetes and high blood pressure. She suffered a stroke in October 2009 and died at age 91 in July 2010. Her nephews were her three closest surviving relatives.
The nephews objected to the will after it was offered for probate, arguing at a hearing under §1404 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act in October and November 2010 that Charlotte Stafford was under the undue influence of House.
But Surrogate Judge William Ames granted summary judgment dismissing the nephews’ objections in a May 2012 ruling, finding that since there was no motive, the allegation of undue influence could not be sustained. The Third Department affirmed Ames’ ruling in its Nov. 27 determination.
“Although summary judgment in a contested probate matter indeed is rare, it nonetheless ‘is proper when the petitioner sufficiently establishes a prima facie case for probate and the respondent fails to raise any genuine issue of fact,’” Egan wrote, quoting Matter of Shapiro, 100 AD3d 1242 (2012).
According to the decision, House and Charlotte Stafford shared an interest in local history and historical preservation and became friendly in the early 2000s when Stafford was looking for a typist.
House moved into the Stafford family home to care for Charlotte after she suffered a fall in 2004.
Michael Genute of Norwich and Emerson, of Lee & Emerson in Norwich, represented NBT Bank, N.A., the executor of Charlotte Stafford’s estate.
In an interview Tuesday, Emerson said the fact that House benefits little from the will appeared to help convince the courts that Stafford was not under her influence when the will was revised.
“In my book, she [House] gets to change the kitty litter and that is about it,” Emerson said.
But Amy Shapiro of Hinman, Howard & Kattell in Binghamton, who represents the Stafford nephews, contended that Charlotte Stafford became increasingly isolated from her nephews after House began living with her, indicating undue influence.
Citing Matter of Walther, 6 NY2d 49 (1959), and In re Estate of Anna, 248 NY 421 (1928), among other cases, Shapiro said she knows of no cases where New York courts have required that a motive be shown before holding that undue influence was involved in the making of a will.
She also argued that Kissie was jointly owned by both House and Stafford and that it is unusual to, in essence, pay House from the Stafford estate to take care of what is now her own pet.
Shapiro said she was disappointed with the ruling and would consult with the Stafford nephews to determine whether to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
@|Joel Stashenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.