The estate settlement process in New York involves a number of stages. The first stage is typically the appointment of the fiduciary. Where the decedent has left a Last Will, the Will must be probated. Throughout New York such as in Westchester or the Bronx, probate in the Surrogate's Court can involve kinship issues, Will contests or proving the validity of a lost Will.
When a person dies without a Will or intestate, the process of appointing a fiduciary is known as an Administration proceeding. Proper New York estate planning should be done to avoid intestacy. Where there is no Will, the decedent's estate is distributed to his or her next of kin or "distributees". Many of the problems that can be faced in Administration proceedings, such as kinship hearings, have been discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog.
After the initial stage of appointing a fiduciary, the next stage in estate settlement is the actual collection of estate assets and the payment of estate expenses such as taxes and debts. This stage involves many issues regarding the decedent's affairs including estate tax determination and possible Court proceedings regarding disputes with estate creditors or claimants. The numerous tasks involved in marshaling the decedent's assets and administering the estate affairs can take many months. Once this phase of the estate is completed, the time has come to distribute the estate assets to the beneficiaries.
This final stage typically involves the preparation of a full Accounting which specifies all of the transactions entered into by the Executor or Administrator during the course of the estate. An estate Accounting contains a number of parts called Schedules, each of which contains different information. One Schedule shows the assets that a fiduciary collected while another Schedule shows the various expenses that were paid. Another Schedule shows the amount of estate assets that are currently available for distribution.
After review of the Accounting, the estate beneficiaries often agree to approve the Accounting informally or without a separate Accounting Proceeding in Surrogate's Court. However, if estate beneficiaries do not agree, the fiduciary would then file the Accounting with the Surrogate's Court in Queens or Manhattan or whatever County the estate is being administered in. The estate beneficiaries can then file Objections to the Accounting and the Court will make the final determination as to the validity of the objections.
Objections to the Accounting can include such items as breaches of fiduciary duty for commingling assets or misappropriation of funds. Other objections can relate to improper payment of expenses or losses sustained due to the decline in value of an estate asset. Following the approval of the Accounting by the beneficiary or the determination of the Court as to any formal objections, the estate assets can be distributed and the estate settled. A recent case decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on March 6, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 19, 2012 entitled Accounting of Chase Manhattan Bank, provides an example of the many types of issues that can be raised in a Surrogate's Court Accounting. Although this case concerned an accounting by Trustees of a revocable inter vivos trust, the issues included claims of underpayment of distributions and wrongful payments.
Formal Court accountings are typically long and complex proceedings. Most estates are settled out of Court. However, it is important that the fiduciary keep and retain good records and report the estate transactions to the beneficiaries in a clear and concise manner. Such actions by the fiduciary should result in a smooth ending to estate administration and distribution of assets to estate beneficiaries.
New York Probate Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to Probate, Administration and estate settlement throughout New York City including Brooklyn and Queens. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.