As discussed in a number of earlier posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, a decedent's next of kin ("distributees") need to be determined in Surrogate's Court proceedings such as probate and intestate administration.
The estate laws allow significant rights to a decedent's surviving spouse. Estates, Powers and Trusts Law ("EPTL") Section 4-1.1(a)(1) provides that in the case of intestacy, a spouse is entitled to receive $50,000.00 and one-half of an estate if a decedent is survived by a spouse and issue (i.e. children) and if there are no issue, the surviving spouse inherits the whole estate.
In many situations, estate disputes may arise as to the interests claimed by a spouse. New York Will lawyers are familiar with EPTL 5-1.1-A which is entitled "Right of election by surviving spouse". Under this statute a spouse who is disinherited by the decedent can claim an amount that is equivalent to the greater of $50,000.00 or one-third of a decedent's net estate. However, another part of the EPTL, Section 5-1.2, lists various instances where a spouse may be disqualified from receiving a share of an estate. For example, a divorce or a determination that a marriage was void will terminate spousal rights. Another section of this statute, paragraph (a)(5), provides that a spouse will lose his estate rights if he abandoned the spouse that is deceased and the abandonment continued until the spouse's death. Paragraph (a)(6) also directs disqualification in certain cases where a surviving spouse fails to support the deceased spouse.
There have been numerous estate litigation cases over the years concerning whether a spouse's inheritance rights have been terminated under these sections of the law. In a recent case decided by Brooklyn Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres entitled Estate of Joseph E Nichols dated October 4, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on November 15, 2013, Surrogate Lopez Torres upheld the right of the surviving spouse to claim an elective share of the estate. The Court found that the assertions by the decedent's children that the spouse abandoned the decedent or failed to provide the required support were not valid and could not provide a basis to disqualify the surviving spouse. The Court dismissed the objections to spouse's right of election.
The settlement of a New York estate often involves complex issues regarding the determination and status of distributees and their rights to receive a share of a decedent's estate. Sometimes these issues are resolved through a kinship hearing. In other cases, different proceedings such as the determination of the validity of a spousal right of election may be the process for such review. In all Surrogate Court disputes, it is always helpful to obtain advice and guidance from a qualified estates and trusts lawyer.