Filing income tax returns as “single” for the 11 years before a decedent’s death, did not, as a matter of law, estop a woman from claiming to be the decedent’s surviving spouse in contested estate proceedings. So held New York County Surrogate Nora S. Anderson in the May 22, 2014 decision in Estate of Tran (pdf).

Sang Kim Nguyen filed a petition to be appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Truong Dinh Tran. Ms. Nguyen claimed to be Mr. Truong’s widow under the common law of Vietnam. Separate cross-petitions for appointment were filed Mr. Truong’s alleged son, duaghter’s and grandson, who all sought summary dismissal of Ms. Nguyen’s petition.

Mr. Truong died at the age of 80 on May 6, 2012, leaving an estate that has been estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

According to Wikipedia, Truong was the principal owner of the Vishipco Line, the largest shipping company in South Vietnam in the 1970s. As a shipowner, he earned millions of dollars hauling cargo for the United States military. Truong left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to the communists. Truong boarded one of his eleven ships and traveled to the United States with two suitcases of gold.

He began his hotel business in New York City, first with the Hotel Opera on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and then Hotel Carter (deemed the dirtiest hotel in the US in 2009) in Midtown Manhattan and Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo, New York, Quality Inn Downtown, Best Western (Baltimore). Along the way Mr. Truong owned and operated other New York hotels as well, including the infamous Hotel Kenmore Hall on 23rd Street which was seized from Truong by the US Marshals Service in 1994 because of deplorable conditions and rampant crime within the building.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States he contributed $2 million of his personal funds to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. In 1984 during the famine in Ethiopia, he also bought for the hunger relief organization in Ethiopia two helicopters (worth buying at around $3.2 million). In 2005, he sent $100,000 to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In the matter before Surrogate Anderson, Ms. Nguyen alleged that she was married to decedent decades ago and remained his wife until his death. More than 20 other individuals also claimed to be Mr. Truong’s distributees as decedent’s issue through his relationships with six women, including Ms. Nguyen.

The two alleged marriages bearing on whether Ms. Nguyen was Mr. Truong’s wife at his death purportedly were contracted in Vietnam when the alleged marital parties were Vietnamese domiciliaries. The movants contended, however, that whatever the facts as to the alleged marriages and whatever the law of Vietnam, the law of New York peremptorily barred Ms. Nguyen from pressing her claim to a spousal share because she had declared herself to be “single” in individual income tax filings for the 11 years immediately preceding decedent’s death.

The principal authority on which movants relied was the decision of the New York Court of Appeals in Mahoney-Buntzman v. Buntzman, 12 N.Y.3d 415, 881 N.Y.S.2d 369 (2009). In that case, the Court of Appeals held that tax filings by the ex-husband foreclosed him from taking the litigative position that certain funds were not within the marital pot. His relevant tax return reported the funds in question as earnings, and not, as the husband contended in court, the proceeds of a sale of separate property.

The movants pointed to Mahoney-Buntzman as conclusive authority for their contention that a party cannot ask a court to declare Ms. Nguyen a spouse if she herself declared her “single” status in income tax returns for the period in question; that Ms. Nguyen was now estopped from taking a position contrary to that she had taken in her tax filings for her benefit.

However, Surrogate Anderson held that the Mahoney-Buntzman ruling was not categorically fatal to Ms. Nguyen’s claimed marital status. Rather, the Court of Appeals’ ruling rested on long-settled estoppel principles.

The hallmark of equity is its flexibility.

In Mahoney-Buntzman, the estoppel imposed by the trial court below had been a matter of judicial “discretion.” There is no per se rule.

(Moreover, the issue estopped in Mahoney-Buntzman was distinguishable in significant degree if not in kind than that presented here. The Mahoney-Buntzman issue involved a declaration as to fact, whereas the question of marital status here involved a complex mix of fact and law.

Reviewing various decisions, Surrogate Anderson noted decisions applying an estoppel predominately involved inconsistencies as to fact, rather than, as here, mixed questions of fact and law:

Surrogate Anderson held that estoppel may not fairly be imported into a litigation where “no single factor” is determinative of the question as to which there has been inconsistent positions. The no-single-factor standard certainly can be applicable to the question of marital status. Thus, in other cases, claims to the existence of common law marriages were not deemed to be automatically concluded by the lone fact that during the putative marriages the claimants had declared themselves to be single for tax purposes. Although the decisions referenced by the Surrogate predated Mahoney-Buntzman, the principle of estoppel animating the Court of Appeals’ decision in Mahoney-Buntzman, Surrogate Anderson noted, was no less vital.

That was not to suggest that the inconsistency between Ms. Nguyen’s declarations in her tax returns, on the one hand, and her spousal claim here, on the other hand, was irrelevant in this litigation. It was only to rule that such inconsistency was not per se fatal to her petition. Summary judgment dismissing her petition was denied.