Proceedings in the New York Surrogate's Court, like most Court matters, require that all of the interested parties be given proper notice of the Court action.
In addition to the fundamental fairness that results from proper notice, the Court's ultimate rulings and Orders generally can have no effect over persons who were not made parties to the proceeding.
The Surrogate's Court can hear many different types of cases. The most common of these matters is the Probate of a Will or the Intestate Administration of a decedent's estate. In Probate and Administration proceedings it is mandated that the Court be advised as to identity and location of the decedent's distributees or next of kin. This information is provided to the Court in the Probate Petition or Petition for Letters of Administration. In most instances distributees are easy to determine since the decedent is survived by a spouse and/or children. However, there are many situations where the closest living relative may be a distant cousin and members of this class of relatives may have had no contact with the decedent for years or decades.
Additionally, locating cousins requires finding relatives that are descendents of the decedent's grandparents on both the maternal and paternal sides of the family. It is common that when distributees are distant cousins the estate will have to be administered by a public official called a Public Administrator. When the Public Administrator completes the estate administration or estate settlement, an Accounting Proceeding is filed with the Court. It is at this point that the persons claiming to be distributees, such as the cousins, must prove their status in a Kinship Hearing.
When a client confers with me about an estate plan or preparing a Last Will, one of the important items of information I ask for is a family tree or kinship data. Based upon the information provided, a person's estate plan can be structured by the use of a Living Trust or other plan to avoid post-death complications where kinship data is missing or hard to obtain. It is always a benefit to confer with a qualified New York Estate and Trust lawyer to discuss issues regarding beneficiary designations and planning strategies.
The final estate administration and intentions of a person can be disrupted where Court proceedings are complicated or delayed because all of the parties that need to be notified cannot be determined or located.
Determining the identity of a person's next of kin can sometimes even involve the use of genetic or DNA testing. A recent article in Arts Beat on September 25, 2012 by Dave Itzkoff reported that a judge had recently ordered DNA testing for a man who claimed to be the brother of Sherman Hemsley, who had starred in the "Jefferson's" television sitcom.
DNA testing is also authorized under Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.2 where a person claims to be the heir of a father who was not married to his mother. Needless to say, the determination of a person's next of kin and the protection of the rights of estate beneficiaries can be very complex and consultation with experienced estate attorneys and even a genealogist is highly recommended.