Estate litigation in New York can involve many types of issues. One area of dispute often concerns the rights various individuals may have in a decedent's Estate or Trust. For example, the New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts issues concerning the determination of a decedent's next of kin or distributees. Kinship Hearings may be required by a Court to decide these issues which often relate to relatives such as cousins or more distant relatives whose relationship may be difficult to establish.
Persons interested in an estate may sometimes challenge the status of a surviving spouse. Questions may arise as to whether a marriage or divorce occurred, particularly where such proceedings occur in a foreign country and record keeping may be poor and valid proof of marriage and divorce proceedings may be difficult to obtain.
Litigation in estates may also arise where a person is either adopted by a decedent or where the decedent gave a child up for adoption and surrendered his parental rights. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 2-1.3(a) provides that adopted children have the same inheritance rights as natural children. The statute, however, allows a person to avoid this result by expressing "a contrary intention". Thus, a person who prepares a Last Will or Trust can specifically exclude adopted children, or any other child for that matter, since there is no requirement in New York preventing a person from completely disinheriting a child, natural or otherwise.
In a sort of reverse situation where a parent gives up a child for adoption, New York Domestic Relations Law 117(b) provides, generally, that after an adoption is complete the adoptive child loses his rights of inheritance from his birth parents. Thus, except in certain specific instances, the adoptive child no longer will have any statutory inheritance rights with regard to the family of the biological parents. While these rules may appear on their face to be able to be applied without much confusion, the dynamics of family interaction and monetary considerations often create complicated issues for the Surrogate's Courts to decide.
An interesting example of the interaction of the New York adoptive rights statutes was recently presented in the Estate of John Svenningsen, which was decided by the New York Appellate Division, Second Department on February 6, 2013. and reported in the New York Law Journal on February 8, 2013. In Svenningsen, the decedent ("John") and his wife "Christine" adopted a child from China about one year before John died. The couple then commenced proceedings to formalize the adoption in Family Court, Westchester County and these proceedings were finalized after John died. John and Christine had other natural children. The documents that were involved in the Court dispute concerned various Trusts and John's Last Will. The Will was probated after John died and the adopted daughter ("Emily") was identified in the Probate Petition by Christine as one of John's children.
More than 7 years after the adoption and six years after the Will was admitted to probate, Christine surrendered her parental rights to Emily who was then adopted by another couple. When Emily's new parents discovered by searching court records that John's estate was valued at more than $250 million dollars, they sought an accounting from John's estate Executors and Trustees. The fiduciaries, however, refused to provide an accounting and claimed that Emily had lost her rights to inherit under John's Trusts and Estate pursuant to DRL 117 due to her adoption out of John's family. Both the Surrogate and the Appellate Court found though that Emily's right to benefit from John's Estate and Trusts were not lost by her adoption and that the fiduciaries were required to provide her with an accounting of her share of the Estate and Trust funds.
One interesting aspect of this case is that Emily's new adoptive parents were able to discover the large amount of funds available in John's estate by researching the Court records. There are many cases in the Surrogate's Court concerning Probate, Administration and Accounting proceedings where I have located valuable information to benefit a client by searching the Court records.