The fundamental goal of an Executor or Guardian administering the estate of a decedent or Guardianship funds is to collect and protect assets and distribute them on behalf of the appropriate beneficiary. The determination of the identity and value of assets is often very complicated. To begin with, assets may be unknown to the Executor, Administrator or Guardian and they must search through financial records such as tax returns and bank statements to discover necessary information. It is not usual for a fiduciary to discover an asset by finding a bank or brokerage statement that is delivered in the mail.
Not only is discovering assets a challenge during estate settlement, the ownership of the asset may be in dispute. For example, a decedent or an incapacitated person may be the owner of a small business with business partners. If the business records were not properly maintained a dispute may arise as to the percentage or share of the business that was owned by the decedent or incapacitated person. Disputes concerning the ownership of assets can have significant ramifications. First and foremost such ownership will directly affect the amounts that can be distributed to the beneficiary of the estate or Guardianship.
Also, whether an estate has a certain value will impact upon whether estate tax returns must be filed and the amount of estate taxes that must be paid. At present, a New York Estate Tax Return must filed if the value of an estate exceeds $1,000,000. The Federal Estate Tax filing requirement is $5,000,000. Additional estate tax issues such as a marital deduction may be impacted by the nature and extent of assets.
Queens Estate Lawyers, as well as estate lawyers throughout New York, work closely with their clients who are fiduciaries to ascertain and collect assets of an estate. The same holds true for New York Guardianship lawyers.
Estate litigation that generally occurs in the Surrogate's Court may involve many issues regarding property and assets. A recent post in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog on August 24, 2012 discussed a case where the Last Will of Adam Yauch, a founding member of the Beastie Boys, faced probate and interpretation issues due to a handwritten addition to the Will.
Another recent case involving estate assets involves a dispute regarding rights claimed by heirs of one of the co-creators of the Superman character. As reported by Ted Johnson in Variety.com on August 14, 2012, "Ruling Near in Superman Rights Battle", the dispute between a nephew of the co-creator, who is also the estate executor and Warner Bros. is to be decided by a U.S. District Court Judge. While the controversy concerns the interpretation of a prior settlement agreement and copyright law, the outcome will have a tremendous impact due to the apparent value of the Superman promotional rights.
The best course is for individuals to ascertain all of the assets that may be part of their estate and to clarify and resolve all issues regarding ownership rights as part of their Estate Planning. As can be seen from the recent situations discussed above, this is not always accomplished so as to avoid estate contests and controversy.