New York Estate Administration Attorneys are often confronted with questions as to whether a decedent was married at the time of death. The issue of marital status is important since a surviving spouse is a distributee (next of kin) under New York Estate Laws and is afforded certain rights in a decedent's estate. These rights have been discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog including a spousal right of election (Estates, Powers and Trusts Law [EPTL] Section 5-1.1 A) and a spousal right to an intestate share of the estate (EPTL Section 4-1.1).
The determination as to a person being married at the time of death involves investigation as to whether there was a valid marriage and, if so, was the marriage terminated by a valid divorce.
New York Estate Litigation may be necessary to provide an answer to these inquiries. As a New York Trust and Estate Lawyer, I often need to investigate such issues by obtaining and examining relevant documents such as marriage certificates and divorce settlements and divorce decrees to advise clients as to the decedent's marital status so that proper estate settlement can occur.
A recent case in the Richmond County Surrogate's Court provides an example of the complicated facts that can be involved in determining marital status. In Estate of Daniel Kelly, decided by Surrogate Robert Gigante on June 18, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on June 29, 2012, the decedent and his spouse entered into a divorce Separation and Settlement Agreement on October 16, 2008. On that same date they appeared in Court and the divorce judge granted the divorce. However, the decedent died on January 7, 2009 and the actual divorce judgment was not signed until March 25, 2009 relating back to the October 16, 2008 Court divorce decision. Based upon the above events, the Surrogate in Kelly found that the decedent was divorced at the time of his death.
As is common in many divorce situations, divorcing parties provide in their settlement or separation Agreements that each waives or relinquishes rights in the others' assets and property including insurance policies and retirement benefits. Problems arise where, despite the waiver of rights, the name of the divorced spouse is not changed or deleted as a beneficiary on the insurance policy or retirement account. Surrogate's Court litigation then becomes necessary to determine the rightful payee of the decedent's benefits.
In Kelly, the decedent's former spouse remained named as a beneficiary of his federal retirement benefits. However, the parties' Separation and Settlement Agreement specifically provided that the divorced spouse waived all rights to these benefits. The Court, after reviewing the parties' divorce agreement and their apparent intentions, determined that the surviving divorced spouse waived all interest in these benefits and that the retirement funds should be paid to the decedent's estate.
Estate Administration can be very complex and involve the review and analysis of many types of papers concerning the decedent's affairs such as deeds, business agreements and divorce papers. All of these documents can impact estate settlement, estate taxes and distribution of assets to estate beneficiaries. I have assisted executors and administrators for over 30 years with all aspects of estate administration and the review of various documents required for successful and efficient estate processing.