There have been a number of previous discussions in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog regarding disputes that arise when a decedent transfers assets to others prior to death. Such transfers are sometimes made to family members or to non-relative third parties. The problems and disputes that arise from such transfers basically involve whether the transfers were intended by the decedent to replace dispositions that were carefully set forth in a Last Will or Trust. In many instances, these lifetime transfers do not reflect the same estate plan as stated in a Last Will and often benefit one or more beneficiaries at the expense of others.
For example, a person may have bank funds in his or her name in a bank account that is bequeathed equally to a number of beneficiaries named in a Last Will or Trust. The person may have spent many hours reviewing his estate plan with his Probate Lawyer before finalizing the documents. However, prior to death, the person may add one of the beneficiaries to the bank account either as a joint owner or as a named beneficiary. In such a case, when the person dies, ownership of the bank account will automatically be in the named beneficiary and the account funds will not be included in the decedent's estate to be distributed to all of the beneficiaries designated in a Last Will or Trust. The question that arises is whether the decedent put the beneficiary's name on the account with the intent to benefit only the beneficiary or whether the name was added due to undue influence or without an understanding that such action would change the decedent's estate plan.
Such disputes are common in Surrogate's Court litigation throughout New York including the Bronx and Westchester Counties. Executors and Administrators are very often faced with the estate settlement task of attempting to recover assets for the estate that have been transferred to others.
A recent case in the New York County Surrogate's Court, entitled Matter of Appleby, was presented to Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen. In a decision dated September 12, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on September 26, 2011, the Court was faced with a number of issues that arose concerning funds that a decedent allegedly loaned to her son prior to her death. The decedent's executor attempted to have the son's estate (the son died shortly after his mother) repay these funds to the decedent's estate. The son's executor had sought to have the case dismissed on various grounds but the Court, for the most part, decided that issues existed that needed to go to trial. The Court found that questions existed as to whether the monies given to the son were enforceable loans to be paid back to the decedent's estate.
It is always an important aspect of estate planning, to update and review not only the identity of assets and beneficiaries, but the manner in which assets are owned (ie, individually or jointly, etc.) and the impact such ownership may have on estate distribution.