Manhattan and Other New York Couples Still Face Estate and Other Problems Under the Same-Sex Marriage Law
Beginning on July 24, 2011 same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in New York. As is common with most new laws, marriage equality provides many new estate and property rights while leaving unanswered other issues.
As is provided throughout New York estate statutes such as the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act (SCPA) and the Estates, Power and Trusts Law (EPTL), marriage creates a plethora of spousal rights that are quite beneficial. For instance, EPTL section 5-1.1-A provides for a spousal right of election. In essence, the statute seeks to prevent one spouse from disinheriting the other through a Last Will. The statute grants the disinherited spouse certain rights to receive a minimum share of a decedent's estate.
Similarly, where a person dies intestate without a Last Will EPTL section 4-1.1 provides that the surviving spouse is to receive a share of the estate. Absent the recognition of same-sex marriage, the death of one partner in a same sex relationship left the surviving partner as nothing more than a stranger with regard to estate distribution unless the decedent had actually named the survivor as a beneficiary under a Last Will or other testamentary document such as a revocable trust.
Manhattan probate and administration proceedings, as well as proceedings throughout New York, have been dramatically changed by the new law. Despite these new state entitlements, questions and problems remain, particularly with regard to estate planning and government entitlements. As of now, a federal statute called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) provides that federal law only recognizes a marriage between a man and a woman. Thus, the same sex marriages that result in the recognition of state-level benefits are ignored for purposes of federal law. As an example, the New York Probate Law Blog has discussed the amendments to the Federal estate tax laws that were enacted in December 2010. Among the changes in the Federal law was a provision that allowed the "portability" or transfer of the unused $5,000,000 estate tax credit between spouses. However, such portability appears not to be available at present to validly married New York same sex couples since they are not considered to be married under Federal law. New York estate planning and estate settlement issues can be very complex given the conflicting application of laws. The same problem arises with the unlimited estate tax marital deduction which would be applied for New York estate tax purposes but not Federal estate tax.
In an article entitled For Love and Money: Inequalities Remain Despite Same-Sex Marriage, written by Allison Arden Besunder published in Law.com on July 1, 2011, many of the "disparities" and conflicts between Federal and New York State laws are discussed.
I represent clients in Surrogate's Court proceedings and estate tax and property matters. As a New York City estate attorney, it is apparent that clients preparing their Wills and executors administering an estate require an indepth understanding of both Federal and State laws.