The administration of a New York estate requires that estate fiduciaries, such as Executors and Administrators, determine and resolve debts that are left by a decedent.
Debts and liabilities can take many forms. A decedent may have owned a home or other real estate. Such assets can have mortgage debts as well as judgments or other unpaid monetary liens such as municipal environmental control board violations, building code penalties, mechanics liens and property tax assessments. The estate fiduciary is obligated to discover all of these liabilities, determine the amount that may be validly due and then formulate the best manner in which to satisfy the outstanding balances. It is very common for the decedents' real estate to be sold and the sales proceeds used to pay off the liabilities that relate to the real estate such as the mortgage. However, the sale of the real estate may take many months or years depending upon the marketplace. Meanwhile, mortgage payments and taxes can continue to come due and accumulate. Foreclosure may be a real threat to preserving the value of the estate's property. These are all problems and issues that an estate fiduciary must solve as part of his or her fiduciary duty.
Estate liabilities may also be in the form of business obligations such as leases, credit card bills, medical bills and pending lawsuits. Manhattan probate attorneys as well as estate attorneys throughout New York regularly advise and help their clients who are Executors and Administrators as to the manner in which to protect the decedent's estate in these types of situations.
I have represented many individuals where it was necessary to uncover and investigate the validity of liabilities that could be costly to an estate. Working closely with clients, these issues are reviewed and resolved to protect the interests of the estate beneficiaries and satisfy the obligations of the fiduciary.
It should be recognized that the decedent's obligations are generally only enforceable against the decedent's estate. Estate beneficiaries are usually not liable for any of the decedent's debts and the estate fiduciaries, such as Executors, are only liable for these debts as representatives of the estate. There is usually no personal liability on the part of the Executor or Administrator for a decedent's debts. Moreover, a creditor cannot bring a lawsuit against the decedent's estate until a fiduciary is appointed by the Court. In a recent case entitled Rotwein v. Murray, decided on February 15, 2012 by Judge Michael A. Ciaffa of the Nassau County District Court, and reported in the New York Law Journal on February 28, 2012, the Court dismissed a lawsuit by a doctor for medical services performed for a decedent prior to death. The doctor had sued the decedent's wife as "Executor" of the estate. However, since the doctor failed to provide the Court with any proof that the wife, or anyone else had in fact been appointed as Executor, the lawsuit was dismissed. Rotwein shows that without the actual appointment of an estate fiduciary, there is no one who is authorized to represent the decedent's estate that can be subjected to a lawsuit.