New York City

Brooklyn and Staten Island square off in battle over $8M estate

April 4, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Two borough public administrators are set to argue in court over an elderly woman’s estate, estimated at $8 million.

Palma Bonora was born in Brooklyn in 1921. According to court records, she never moved out of the borough voluntarily. Later in life, Bonora was the subject of an Article 81 proceeding where she was deemed mentally incompetent and in 2006, Neil Mauriello and Margaret Alverson were appointed guardian of Bonora’s person and property, respectively.

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In 2008, Bonora was moved to the St. Elizabeth and Ann Health Care & Rehabilitation Center in Staten Island and died in that borough in 2013.Upon her death, it was discovered that Bonora did not have a will. When an individual dies intestate—or without a will—the county public administrator where the decedent is domiciled is responsible for locating any of the decedent’s living heirs. If no heirs are located, the estate typically escheats to the state. A public administrator is generally given a commission for administering the estate—monies that go directly to the public administrator’s borough.

The Staten Island public administrator Gary Gotlin filed a petition on November 8, 2013, with Staten Island Surrogate Robert Gigante, staking a claim in Staten Island’s right to administer Bonora’s estate and receive a commission off of the estimated $8 million. On Dec. 6, 2013, the Brooklyn public administrator Bruce Stein filed similar documents in Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court, noting Brooklyn’s right to the Bonora commission. 

With battling public administrator claims, Staten Island Surrogate Gigante recognized that both boroughs had a potential interest in Bonora’s estate. However, there could only be one victor.

In order to determine which borough possesses priority interest in an intestate estate, the courts tend to look at where the decedent was domiciled.

Domicile, for legal purposes, indicates where an individual permanently resides. “Typical factors used in determining a decedent’s domicile are where one’s utilities went, what address was used for tax returns and the address listed on the decedent’s license,” Terrance Ricaforte, an estate planning lawyer for the Brooklyn law firm Connors & Sullivan P.C., told the Brooklyn Daily EagleA further factor for determining domicile is to look at whether or not the decedent had a permanent home to return to.

Determining Bonora’s domicile does not appear to be a simple task.

While she was in the Staten Island nursing home, Bonora’s guardian sold her permanent Brooklyn residence. “With no permanent residence to go home to, how can you establish [Brooklyn] as your domicile?” Ricaforte questioned.

For Staten Island Surrogate Gigante, because Bonora’s domicile was contested, “the court that first obtained jurisdiction over the estate by the commencement of a proceeding will determine domicile.” In this case, Staten Island filed their paperwork in November 2013 with Brooklyn filing a month later. Under Gigante’s guidelines, Staten Island is the correct administrator. 

Brooklyn, however, did view Gigante as the final arbiter. Public administrator Stein sought an order from Brooklyn Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres for a declaration on Bonora’s actual domicile.  Lopez Torres ruled that the question is not which administrator first filed a petition, but rather which county was first granted Letters of Administration to administer the decedent’s estate.

Though Staten Island filed its petition in November 2013, it was not granted full Letters of Administration until December 30, 2013. Brooklyn, on the other hand, was granted full Letters on December 16, 2013.

With two competing Surrogate orders, Brooklyn and Staten Island public administrators are preparing to argue over the right to administer Bonora’s $8 million estate in front of the justices of the Appellate Division, 2nd Department—and, if necessary, the New York State Court of Appeals. 

“What I find perplexing is that [Bonora] was declared mentally incompetent and a guardian sold her property. Once the guardian stepped in to sell the Brooklyn residence, as far as domicile is concerned, Bonora may not have truly been a Brooklyn resident because she did not have a Brooklyn home to return to,” explained a Bay Ridge estate attorney.

Another issue likely to be taken into consideration is where Bonora intended her permanent residence to be. As indicated in court documents, Bonora did not move from Brooklyn during the period of her lucidity, prior to the finding of her mental incompetence. It was not until she was deemed mentally ill that Bonora was moved to Staten Island.

“If she intended to remain in Brooklyn, that could be a significant issue,” noted the Bay Ridge attorney who did not want to be identified.  For probate attorney RicaForte, “if [Bonora] intended for her money to be administered by Brooklyn, she should have written a will.”

Richard Freeman, a partner at Cullen and Dykman will represent Brooklyn public administrator Stein and Richard LaRosa of Passarello & LaRosa, will serve as the attorney for Staten Island public administrator Gary Gotlin.

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