The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has reviewed the many instances where family status or kinship can affect an inheritance. In a blog post dated November 22, 2011, there was a discussion regarding the determination of kinship in order to establish a person's right to receive a share of a decedent's estate.
Most cases in New York Surrogate's Courts, including Manhattan Probate proceedings or Westchester intestate Administration proceedings, require that a decedent's heirs be specified so that their rights are protected and the estate is distributed correctly.
It is not uncommon to find disputes among heirs and other estate beneficiaries concerning the validity of a claim as to heirship. Issues involving adoption, paternity, artificial insemination and other questions as to family relations can become fierce battles, especially where the outcome involves large sums of money in the form of an inheritance.
One particular area where controversy can occur is the determination of a decedent's spouse. While it may appear to be routine to ascertain a person's wife or husband, difficulties can arise, particularly where individuals live in many different states and countries during their lives all of which have different rules and recording keeping methods for marriages and divorces. The determination of a decedent's surviving spouse is essential for many reasons. From a tax standpoint, the Federal and New York estate tax laws provide that assets passing to the surviving spouse qualify for a 100% marital deduction. A surviving spouse also has many rights under New York estate laws including the right of spousal election. A spousal right of election gives a surviving spouse the right to receive a share of the decedent's estate notwithstanding that the decedent may have disinherited the spouse. The New York right of election is provided in Estates, Powers and Trusts Law section 5-1.1-A.
In order to invoke the benefits of the statute, an individual must, in fact, be the decedent's surviving spouse. A recent case entitled Will of Newman decided by Surrogate John M. Czgier, Jr., in Suffolk County Surrogate's Court on September 26, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on November 1, 2011, shows how important it is to closely examine the facts supporting a claim of spousal status.
In Newman, the decedent's spouse filed a right of election. It was determined after investigation that the surviving spouse and the decedent had gotten married on a date 3 months before the surviving spouse finalized a divorce from a prior marriage. Since the surviving spouse's prior marriage was not dissolved before the marriage to the decedent, the marriage between the decedent and the claiming surviving spouse was void. Thus, the right of election could not be asserted due to the invalidity of the marriage.
New York estate planning is also affected by spousal rights. Wills and trusts can be drafted to take advantage of the estate tax marital deduction and bequests can be provided to insure that spousal rights are satisfied.
I have represented estate fiduciarys and claimants in situations where spousal claims must be determined and resolved. I also provide assistance to clients to develop estate plans that take into account a spouse's right to share in an estate.