The First Department reversed Surrogate’s Court and determined that releases restricting decedent’s power of appointment were not procured by constructive fraud (as a matter of law) and were enforceable. The releases allowed decedent to exercise powers of appointment re: a trust only in favor of a descendant. Decedent’s wife was the beneficiary of a codicil, executed by the decedent after the execution of the releases, which purported to award her 25% of the trust plus the income from 75% of the trust for life. In finding the wife had not raised a question of fact about whether the releases were procured by constructive fraud, the court wrote:
The principles underlying the concept of constructive fraud are of long-standing duration:
“It may be stated as universally true that fraud vitiates all contracts, but as a general thing it is not presumed but must be proved by the party seeking to relieve himself from an obligation on that ground. Whenever, however, the relations between the contracting parties appear to be of such a character as to render it certain that they do not deal on terms of equality but that either on the one side from superior knowledge of the matter derived from a fiduciary relation, or from an overmastering influence, or on the other from weakness, dependence, or trust justifiably reposed, unfair advantage in a transaction is rendered probable, there the burden is shifted, the transaction is presumed void, and it is incumbent upon the stronger party to show affirmatively that no deception was practiced, no undue influence was used, and that all was fair, open, voluntary and well understood. This doctrine is wellsettled.” …
“To avoid a release on the ground of fraud, a party must allege every material element of that cause of action with specific and detailed evidence in the record sufficient to establish a prima facie case … . “In the absence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties to the release, the party seeking to avoid the release bears the burden of proving such fraud or other vitiating circumstances”… . Moreover, a release should “not be treated lightly” and “should never be converted into a starting point for renewed litigation” except in cases of “grave injustice” and then, only under “the traditional bases of setting aside written agreements” … . * * *
It is well established that a “party who signs a document without any valid excuse for having failed to read it is conclusively bound by its terms” … . The record is devoid of any excuse, let alone a valid excuse, for failing to read the release prior to signing it … . * * * “[T]o hold a release forever hostage to legal afterthoughts basically vitiates the nature of the release” … .