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Domestic Partner Released Claims Against Decedent’s Estate

No proof of fraud, duress or mutual mistake

In Matter of Cheng Ching Wang, 2014 NY Slip Op 01322, the decedent, Cheng Ching Wang, died testate on Sept. 14, 2006, and his will was admitted to probate in Westchester County.  Betty Kheng Ngoh Phillips, a resident of Singapore, filed various claims against Wang’s estate.  Phillips alleged that she and Wang had been in a domestic partnership for more than 30 years and that they had entered into an oral agreement in which he agreed to establish a fund to provide her with $10 million prior to his death and $150,000 each year for her life in exchange for her homemaking and support during his extended visits to Asia.  The executors of Wang’s estate rejected these claims, in part because they were in possession of a letter dated July 15, 2004 in which Phillips had agreed to waive all claims against Wang, his family or his estate. 

Phillips thereafter brought a proceeding pursuant to Section 1809 of New York’s Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act to determine the validity of her claims.  She alleged that the release was obtained through duress or undue influence and was therefore unenforceable.  Wang’s executors moved for summary judgment dismissing Phillips’ petition.  The Surrogate’s Court granted summary judgment, determining that the release was clear and that Phillips failed to raise a triable issue of fact. 

On appeal, the Second Department upheld the Surrogate’s Court grant of summary judgment.  The court stated that a valid release completely bars any action on a claim that’s the subject of the release, whether or not there’s consideration.  A party seeking to invalidate a release may do so by proving fraud, duress or mutual mistake.  In this case, the executors established that Phillips had fairly, knowingly and voluntarily released all claims against Wang’s estate.  To support their argument, the executors relied on Phillips’ deposition testimony, in which she stated she wasn’t under duress when signing the release, and on letters Phillips had written to Wang in which she referenced the release without disputing its validity, thereby ratifying the agreement.  The court further held that the fact that Phillips had failed to consult with an attorney prior to signing the release didn’t invalidate the agreement.

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