Articles Posted in Kinship

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The determination of kinship is important for all New York estate matters. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has had many posts discussing this issue.

Firstly, an Estate Planning Lawyer typically asks a client to provide information regarding next of kin. This information serves many useful purposes. It can indicate whether a person’s estate might be the subject of a Will Contest or Will Dispute if a testator is leaving a large portion of an estate to individuals who are not close relatives. If this is the case, the estate planning attorney may suggest alternative methods of asset distribution such as lifetime gifts or a living trust. These vehicles would avoid the probate and Surrogate’s Court process which provides next of kin (i.e. “distributees”), with an automatic right to contest a person’s Last Will.

Kinship information is important when a Last Will is to be filed for probate. An Estate Lawyer needs to prepare a Probate Petition that includes all information such as names and address of a decedent’s distributees. These distributees are then provided with a notice issued by the Court called a Citation as to the probate proceedings.

When a person dies without a Will, the estate is subject to intestate administration. The estate beneficiaries are the persons determined under the New York statutes. Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section (“EPTL”) 4-1.1 provides for the priority of the heirs entitled to inherit.

In many cases, the next of kin of a decedent are unknown or are distant in relation such as cousins. It may be that the county Public Administrator is needed to administer such estates and that a Kinship Hearing is required by the Surrogate’s Court to establish the identity of the persons entitled to the inheritance. As can be seen, it is important to have complete information regarding kinship for effective estate planning and estate administration. Although a person may prepare a Last Will leaving his or her assets to a close friend or other non-heir beneficiary, the probate of the Will may be delayed and unduly costly due to the search for decedent’s heirs who were not identified or considered when the estate plan was created. Of course, when a person does not prepare a Last Will, the likelihood of complications regarding the determination and proof of kinship increases dramatically.

A recent Ohio case, although not directly involving a kinship estate problem, points to the issues faced when a person needs to show familial relationships such as the whereabouts or status of a potential heir. As reported by Ryan Dunn in The Courier.com dated October 8, 2013, a fellow named Eugene Miller was declared legally dead by the Hancock County Probate Court in 1994, which was eight years after he disappeared. Mr. Miller recently reappeared and claimed to have just “took off” due to alcoholism and loss of his job. He then petitioned the Court to reverse its ruling that he was dead. The Court, however, refused to reverse its ruling because the three (3) year limit to change the ruling had passed. Mr. Miller was told by the Court that he was still considered to be legally dead.

While Mr. Miller’s predicament seems somewhat unique, it points to the uncertainties and difficulties that can be presented when attempting to show kinship and proving that an ancestor is deceased or that he was not survived by any living issue. EPTL Section 2-1.7 entitled “Presumption of Death From Absense; effect of exposure to specific peril” provides a procedure to have an absentee declared to be dead. Also, New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act 2225 entitled “Determination of distributees, devisees, legatees, beneficiaries and distributive and beneficial shares” provides a procedure to have a possible estate beneficiary declared presumatively deceased.

The estate planning and administration process is quite complex and the need to understand and determine kinship is essential.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has provided a number of posts regarding the importance of determining kinship in estate proceedings. Other posts have discussed the necessity of determining a person’s domicile in estate matters. This blog contains same basic points as a reminder of the necessity to properly consider both these issues in estate matters.

With regard to kinship, many estate proceedings in the New York Surrogate’s Court require that a person’s distributees (i.e., next of kin) be fully determined and reported to the Court. Both Administration and Probate proceedings require that proper notice be given to such individuals. In administration proceedings, where a person dies Intestate (i.e., without a Last Will), the decedent’s distributees are the ones who will inherit the estate and who can be named as Estate Administrators. Section 4-1.1 of the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law provides the order of priority of persons who can inherit the estate in the case of intestacy.

When the distributees of a decedent are not fully known or when the closest living relatives are more distant such as in Cousin Cases, the Court can require a Kinship Proceeding or hearing to determine the appropriate next of kin. Finding a person’s kinship history is not always easy, especially when families have been separated for many years throughout the USA or the world. Obtaining the assistance of an experienced New York Probate Attorney and genealogist can be vital in these matters in order to secure a person’s inheritance. While not a matter for the probate court, a recent controversy regarding the identity of the relatives of the late gangster, Al Capone, shows the confusion and uncertainty that can surround proving the members of a decedent’s family.

As reported at TMZ.com on April 17, 2013, Reelz Channel is planning a new reality show entitled “The Capones”. However, a person named “Chris K. Capone”, who claims to the gangster’s grandson, has asserted that the show’s star “Dominic Capone” is not related to the deceased, Al Capone. As can be seen, family histories can become complicated and certainly difficult to prove without qualified assistance.

Turning to the issue of domicile, it has been discussed that the concept of domicile is determining the jurisdiction where a person intends that his primary home is located. Someone can have many residences in different states and countries but only one domicile. A person’s domicile typically determines the jurisdictional law that applies to a person’s Estate. For example, if a person is domiciled in New York, New York Estate law will be applied to identify the persons who are entitled to inherit from the estate. Additionally, marital rights may be found by looking at the applicable local law. The imposition of local Estate Taxes is another area where domicile is a determining factor.

In today’s mobile society where individuals can change their residence frequently and also have multiple residences, figuring out a decedent’s domicile and the applicable laws is not always easy. In a recent case, Estate of Vincent Hart, decided by Nassau County Surrogate Edward McCarty III, on April 12, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on April 30, 2013, the Court was faced with a slightly different problem. The issue presented was whether the Surrogate’s Court or the Superior Court in Puerto Rico was the most appropriate Court to determine issues regarding a New York Will and a New York Trust. After balancing the equities, the Court determined that most of the substantive issues, which involved New York law, should be determined by the New York Court. As can be seen from the Hart case, multi-jurisdictional Estate Litigation issues can be quite complex and complicate the Estate Settlement process.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in numerous posts that determining the identity of a decedent’s distributees (i.e., next of kin) is very important.

It was recently reported in an article by Jacqui Goddard in The Telegraph on December 27, 2012, entitled “Louis Armstrong’s secret daughter revealed, 42 years after his death” that the jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, had a daughter whose identity was kept secret until 42 years after his death. Although Armstrong died in 1971, his daughter just recently stepped forward claiming she was his natural born child. Interestingly, the article states that Armstrong’s fourth wife had signed a Probate Court affidavit asserting that he had no biological children.

In New York when a Last Will is filed with the Court for probate, the Probate Petition requires that all of the decedent’s next of kin be named and that their addresses be provided. A New York Estate Lawyer typically prepares the Probate forms and Probate papers that must be filed wit the Surrogate’s Court. In many instances the Court asks for additional information regarding kinship. Sometimes when there is only one heir, the Court will ask for a kinship affidavit. Also, when the heirs or distributees are somewhat distant, such as nieces and nephews or grand nieces or nephews, more detailed information is needed. These kinship affidavits provide the Court with full information and documentation regarding the decedent’s family tree.

Problems arise when a decedent’s next of kin are either unknown or cannot be located. The use of professional geneologists and kinship hearings may be required. In the case of Louis Armstrong, it appears that his estate affairs were settled many decades ago. However, in somewhat similar cases where a person claims to be the child of a decedent that the child’s status is disputed, the alleged or purported relationship must be disclosed in the Probate Petition and all interested parties must be given an opportunity to have a hearing regarding the alleged child’s rights. Such rights include the opportunity to Contest a Will or inherit an intestate share. Usually an official Surrogate’s Court notice called a Citation will be served on the interested parties to advise them about the Court proceedings.

It is not always easy to determine or locate a person’s heirs. Individuals may have heirs as the result of multiple siblings or marriages or adoptions and these individuals may be dispersed throughout many counties. Nevertheless, kinship identification is an essential aspect of estate administration and estate settlement.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed different areas concerning estates of decedents such as Last Wills, Kinship, Probate and Administration, as well as Article 81 Guardianships. In many instances there is a combination of issues and problems that estate beneficiaries and fiduciaries face before estate settlement can be finalized. A recent case entitled Estate of Veronica Tesler, decided by Kings County Surrogate, Diana A. Johnson on January 11, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on February 6, 2012, provides a typical example of estate administration that faced many problems.

In Tesler, the decedent, Veronica Tesler, had been determined to be incapacitated prior to her death. As such, the Court had appointed Guardians for her person and property. Also, prior to her death, Veronica had signed a Last Will in which she left her estate to her nephew and appointed him executor.

While Veronica’s preparation of a Last Will was sound estate planning, the nephew predeceased Veronica. Apparently, Veronica did not provide for any alternate disposition of her property. The result was that she effectively died intestate (i.e. without a Will), because there was no provision in her Will for an alternate beneficiary. Tesler demonstrates that it is always best to provide for alternate beneficiaries in a Last Will as well as alternate Executors. The Brookyn Probate of Veronica’s Will was thwarted by this apparent oversight.

Since Veronica died intestate her estate beneficiaries needed to be determined by the intestacy statutes of New York. Here, Veronica’s maternal cousins filed a petition with the Court to obtain Letters of Administration. However, since the maternal cousins could not provide information regarding Veronica’s paternal next of kin (“distributees”), the Court appointed the Public Administrator to handle the estate affairs. The Public Administrator is a public official whose function is to administer estates in various circumstances such as where no family member or no family member of close enough kinship in the case of intestacy is available.

After the Public Administrator completed the administration of Veronica’s estate such as collecting assets and paying bills and debts, the Public Administrator filed an accounting with the Surrogate’s Court. It was at this time that the maternal cousins were required to demonstrate at a Kinship Hearing that they were Veronica’s sole distributees and entitled to receive her entire estate.

Kinship cousin cases can be very complex and require proof in the form of documents such as birth records, death records, marriage certificates, obituaries, census reports and also witness testimony to show which persons actually are the decedent’s sole surviving next of kin. I have represented clients in these proceedings. The use of professional geneologists and investigators is also essential in proving kinship.

In Tesler, the decedent’s maternal cousins were finally able to establish to the satisfaction of the Court that they were the decedent’s sole surviving heirs. The case shows how despite preparing a simple Will, very complicated estate administration proceedings may be needed to settle an estate. Advice from an experienced New York Estate attorney is essential both to prepare an estate plan that can avoid complicated litigation and to help family members succeed in protecting their inheritance rights.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has reviewed the many instances where family status or kinship can affect an inheritance. In a blog post dated November 22, 2011, there was a discussion regarding the determination of kinship in order to establish a person’s right to receive a share of a decedent’s estate.

Most cases in New York Surrogate’s Courts, including Manhattan Probate proceedings or Westchester intestate Administration proceedings, require that a decedent’s heirs be specified so that their rights are protected and the estate is distributed correctly.

It is not uncommon to find disputes among heirs and other estate beneficiaries concerning the validity of a claim as to heirship. Issues involving adoption, paternity, artificial insemination and other questions as to family relations can become fierce battles, especially where the outcome involves large sums of money in the form of an inheritance.

One particular area where controversy can occur is the determination of a decedent’s spouse. While it may appear to be routine to ascertain a person’s wife or husband, difficulties can arise, particularly where individuals live in many different states and countries during their lives all of which have different rules and recording keeping methods for marriages and divorces. The determination of a decedent’s surviving spouse is essential for many reasons. From a tax standpoint, the Federal and New York estate tax laws provide that assets passing to the surviving spouse qualify for a 100% marital deduction. A surviving spouse also has many rights under New York estate laws including the right of spousal election. A spousal right of election gives a surviving spouse the right to receive a share of the decedent’s estate notwithstanding that the decedent may have disinherited the spouse. The New York right of election is provided in Estates, Powers and Trusts Law section 5-1.1-A.

In order to invoke the benefits of the statute, an individual must, in fact, be the decedent’s surviving spouse. A recent case entitled Will of Newman decided by Surrogate John M. Czgier, Jr., in Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court on September 26, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on November 1, 2011, shows how important it is to closely examine the facts supporting a claim of spousal status.

In Newman, the decedent’s spouse filed a right of election. It was determined after investigation that the surviving spouse and the decedent had gotten married on a date 3 months before the surviving spouse finalized a divorce from a prior marriage. Since the surviving spouse’s prior marriage was not dissolved before the marriage to the decedent, the marriage between the decedent and the claiming surviving spouse was void. Thus, the right of election could not be asserted due to the invalidity of the marriage.

New York estate planning is also affected by spousal rights. Wills and trusts can be drafted to take advantage of the estate tax marital deduction and bequests can be provided to insure that spousal rights are satisfied.

I have represented estate fiduciarys and claimants in situations where spousal claims must be determined and resolved. I also provide assistance to clients to develop estate plans that take into account a spouse’s right to share in an estate.

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All New York Probate and Administration cases require an accurate determination of the decedent’s distributees or next of kin. In Brooklyn probate cases, as well as those throughout New York, proper notice of the Probate filing must be given to these persons. In Queens Administration proceedings, like all other such proceedings in New York, not only must distributees be ascertained for purposes of proper notice, their identities must also be established since the distributees are the direct beneficiaries of the estate.

While identifying next of kin may seem routine where a decedent is survived by a spouse or children or grandchildren (“issue”), many person’s die without any easily identifiable heirs. In such cases estate settlement requires that kinship be determined.

Kinship searches require extensive examination of birth, death, marriage, naturalization and other records to determine not only the names of possible heirs but also to eliminate the possibility that living or deceased relatives did not have any other children or descendents. This is essentially known as closing out the class. Surrogate’s Court kinship cases involve meticulous evidence, much of which can be obtained through the employment of a professional genealogist.

Many kinship proceedings such as Cousin Cases, where the closest next of kin are cousins, involve the Public Administrator which is a government official charged with the responsibility of estate administration of estates where close relatives are not known to exist or no one steps forward to commence Surrogate’s Court proceedings.

In many instances the search for heirs results in a sort of dead-end. An heir may be identified but his or her whereabouts is unknown despite a diligent effort to locate him or her. Sometimes, it may be impossible to completely close out the possibility of additional heirs and provide proof that no one else exists as a possible distributee. In these situations, New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 2225 provides a method by which after 3 years following the decedent’s death the law will presume that an identified heir may be presumed deceased without issue and unknown heirs may be presumed not to exist. In order to utilize this Statute, diligent and exhaustive searches must be shown to the Court to have been completed.

I have represented numerous clients in kinship matters. Extensive family research is needed in these cases and all individuals who have had contact with the decedent and have knowledge concerning family relations must be interviewed to determine whether they can be helpful as witnesses for the Court proceedings. Witnesses, as well as genealogists, may need to give testimony. Modern technology is used by the Courts to allow videoconferencing. Thus, testimony by individuals from around the world can be obtained without having to make witnesses travel long distances. This technology provides greater resources to the Courts and the heirs attempting to show their diligent search efforts.

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