Surrogate Lopez-Torres and Surrogate Gigante
Surrogate Lopez-Torres and Surrogate Gigante ()

Surrogates in Brooklyn and Staten Island have each claimed jurisdiction over one woman’s $8 million dollar estate, setting the stage for attorneys representing the two counties to square off in state appellate court on Friday.

The dispute arose because the woman, Palma Bonora, a nearly lifelong Brooklyn resident, spent her final years in a Staten Island nursing home.

The conflict appeared to be headed for a quick resolution when Staten Island Surrogate Robert Gigante (See Profile) ruled on March 20 that Bonora had been domiciled in Staten Island and ordered that her estate be administered there.

According to Gigante’s order, attorneys for both counties’ public administrators had agreed that he, not Brooklyn Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres (See Profile), would decide the question of Bonora’s domicile (NYLJ, April 1).

On Friday, however, Lopez Torres ordered that the case remain in Brooklyn, and that all assets of the estate, most of which were held by Merrill Lynch, be turned over to Brooklyn’s public administrator, Bruce Stein.

Further confusing the case, Bonora had been the subject of an Article 81 guardianship proceeding, and her property entrusted to a court-appointed guardian, Margaret Alverson. On March 25—after Gigante’s order, but before Lopez Torres’s—the judge in the Article 81 case, Brooklyn Acting Supreme Court Justice Loren Baily-Schiffman (See Profile), ordered the estate’s assets turned over to Alverson for the limited purpose of paying taxes.

Merrill Lynch chose to follow Lopez Torres’s order rather than Baily-Schiffman’s and has turned the assets over to Stein, according to Richard LaRosa of Passarello & LaRosa, the attorney for Staten Island public administrator Gary Gotlin.

LaRosa, who estimated the assets at $8 million, said both sides have appealed the rulings against them, and are set to be heard by the Appellate Division, Second Department.

Richard Freeman, a partner at Cullen and Dykman who represents Stein, could not be reached for comment.

Alverson, who has since moved to New Orleans to do capital defense work, said “I’m willing to cooperate with whichever public administrator is finally determined to be the administrator of the estate.”

Bonora was born in 1921 and lived the vast majority of her life in Brooklyn, according to Lopez Torres’s decision. She never married or had children.

In 2004, she moved into SS Joachim & Anne Residence, a Brooklyn nursing home. Her godson, Neil Mauriello, initiated the guardianship proceeding the next year, and in 2006, he was appointed guardian of Bonora’s person and co-guardian, along with Alverson, of her property. He has since been removed from the case and now lives in Las Vegas, LaRosa said.

In 2008, Mauriello had Bonora moved to St. Elizabeth Ann’s Health Care and Rehabilitation on Staten Island, saying in a court affirmation that Joachim & Anne could no longer provide the level of care that she needed. Mauriello also had Bonora’s long-time Brooklyn house demolished and sold the property in 2011.

Bonora died last July, and Gotlin and Stein filed their conflicting petitions for letters of administration.

Stein argued that Bonora never changed her domicile from Brooklyn to Staten Island, since she was mentally incompetent when she was moved from one nursing home to the other. Gotlin argued that Mauriello, as Bonora’s guardian, had changed her domicile. Gigante’s March 20 order decided the issue in Gotlin’s favor.

Gigante also noted that on March 10, Lopez Torres had issued an order to show cause purportedly restraining him from taking action in the case, but wrote that she had “no authority to restrict the letters issued by this Court.”

Nevertheless, Lopez Torres doubled down on her position in Friday’s order. She said the case must be administered in Brooklyn because letters of administration were first issued there, regardless of where petitions were first filed.

She quoted a 1949 Schenectady Surrogate’s case, Matter of Dolansky, 192 Misc. 802, saying “it is well settled that priority in point of time of filing a petition gives no advantage or preference to the first applicant for letters of administration” and that such a preference “would tend to encourage unseemly races to the Surrogate’s Court from the death bed of intestates.”

She wrote, further that Gotlin had not proven clearly and convincingly that Bonora’s domicile had been changed. She quoted the Second Department’s 1993 decision in Matter of Urdang, 194 A.D.2d 615, which said that “it is generally held that an incapacitated person’s admission into a health-care facility does not cause a change of domicile if the incapacitated person is unable to express an intention to establish a new domicile.”

In addition to the assets held by Merrill Lynch, Lopez Torres ordered that Gotlin and Alverson turn any materials related to the estate over to Stein.

The Brooklyn case is Matter of Bonora, File No. 2013-4663/A, while the Staten Island case is File No. 2013-1173.