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A Last Will in New York must be created in accordance with the New York statutes. The Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) contains numerous provisions concerning the fundamental aspects of and requirements for a valid Will. For instance, EPTL 3-1.1 states that anyone over 18 years old having sound mind and memory can dispose of their personal and real property by Will. Probably the most important provisions regarding Wills are contained in EPTL 3-2.1 which is entitled “Execution and attestation of Wills; formal requirements”. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed this section of the law in previous posts. EPTL 3-2.1 states the numerous requirements that a Will must meet in order for it to be valid. Among the stated items is that the Will must be signed at the end by the testator, and that there must be at least two attesting witnesses. While the statute contains many more execution requirements, a signed writing with witnesses is fundamental to the validity of a Will in New York.

Estate litigation in the Surrogate’s Courts often occurs when there is a dispute as to whether a Will was properly executed. One of the grounds upon which to Contest a Will is lack of due execution. For example, someone objecting to a Will may claim that it was signed by a testator but not validly witnessed because the witnesses did not see the testator sign the Will or the testator did not acknowledge his signature to the witness. Sometimes there are questions as to whether the Will is genuine and if the document was actually signed by the testator. As can be imagined, there are a vast majority of Will Contest Litigations concerning the validity of Wills.

New York law tends to be very strict regarding the enforcement of the statutory requirements. In many instances, a prospective beneficiary may be without recourse where a testator prepares a Last Will to be signed or tells a beneficiary that a Will leaves a certain bequest and, as it turns out, the testator never signs a Will containing these provisions. Despite, the testator’s possible intentions, in New York, the failure to comply with statutory rules typically prevents the Probate of the purported or drafted Will. In this regard it is somewhat easy to understand that the strict nature of the law is to present unsigned, unwitnessed or other defective papers from being given validly where the testator is no longer alive to confirm that the defective documents actually express his final intentions.

Notwithstanding the specific requirements of the New York Probate Law, there are recent instances in other jurisdictions where unsigned documents have been admitted to probate and allowed to determine the disposition of a decedent’s estate. In a recent post by Cameron Stuart on April 6, 2013 in News.com, it was reported that Irvin Rockman, a former Melbourne, Australia Lord Mayor, attempted to sign a new Will but could not do so due to the seriousness of his illness. Although he died a few days later, the Australian court upheld the validity of the unsigned final Will finding from the evidence that it expressed Rockman’s intent.

Closer to home, a New Jersey Appellate Court approved the probate of an unsigned copy of a paper intended as a Will. In the Estate of Richard D. Erlich, 427 N.J. Super.64 (2012), the Court essentially determined that the unsigned paper was sufficiently formal and expressed the decedent’s intent and was therefore valid.

Despite these recent examples, the vast majority of Wills admitted to Probate are properly prepared, signed and witnessed. New York Estate Lawyers typically counsel their clients regarding their Estate Plan and supervise the preparation and execution of the client’s Last Will and other estate plan documents such as Living Trusts and Advance Directives. When the time comes to Probate a Will, a professionally prepared, signed and witnessed Will can make the Probate Petition Process and Surrogate’s Court filing more efficient and expeditious and less prone to a contest by unhappy family members.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has had many posts discussing the importance of a person’s intent as reflected in their Estate Planning and Advance Directive documents.

A primary purpose of preparing and executing a Last Will, Living Trust, Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy or Living Will is to provide a clear expression of the manner in which a person wants his affairs to be handled and to select the Executors, Trustees and Agents who will best carry out such desires. As has been discussed, when a person dies without a Last Will or does not otherwise provide for pre-death management of his affairs, the decisions are typically left in the hands of the Courts and New York Law to determine the rightful beneficiaries and administrators. There are occasions, however, when despite expressing ones directions and intent through language in a Will or Trust, the provisions in a person’s Will or Trust fails to fully provide for the implementation of the specific gifts. For example, a Will may bequeath a sum of money to a certain charity. However, a problem would arise if the charity no longer exists or the purposes of which the charity was formed changed. In such a situation, an Executor or Trustee would be faced with a question as to how to dispose of the assets meant for the charity or a specific charitable purpose.

Fortunately, New York State Laws give the Courts, such as the Surrogate’s Court, the authority to modify the Will or Trust to account for a changed circumstance. In the recent case of Matter of Wheaton Galentine Trust, decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on April 8, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on April 12, 2013, a Trust provided for a distribution to St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center for geriatric purposes. Unfortunately, St. Vincent’s had ceased operating in 2010. Utilizing the traditional concept of Cy Pres as set forth in New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 8-1.1, the Court found that the creator’s intent was satisfied by allowing the St. Vincent’s distribution to be made instead to two different medical institutions performing geriatric services. Thus, the Court was able to modify the trust terms to carry out the creator’s intent when faced with circumstances that prevented the original disposition from being satisfied.

New York Estate Planning Lawyers assist their clients with documents that express the client’s intentions regarding their personal and financial affairs and the disposition of their assets. In situations involving Estate or Trust Settlement, these expressions of intent can be instrumental to assist a Court in helping to accomplish the client’s goal. When there is no plan in place, such as in the case of an Intestate Estate, a person’s desire to benefit particular members of his family or friends or a charity cannot be fulfilled. Over the many years, I have assisted many clients with their planning goals to create an estate plan and advance directives that fully reflect their intentions and desires.

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New York Estate Planning Lawyers are familiar with the fundamentals that form a good estate plan. Preparing and executing a Last Will and Testament provides a written declaration as to the disposition of a person’s probate estate. A Will can be made up of various provisions some of which can give specific assets or amounts to named beneficiaries while other parts of the Will may contain bequests in percentages for a number of individuals. Additionally, a Last Will might have clauses that create trusts for minors or provide estate tax planning that might result in many dollars of savings.

In addition to a Last Will, other estate planning documents include a Living Will, Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney and Living Trusts. All of these testamentary and advance directive papers allow a person to carefully plan their estate and future care by implementing a roadmap reflecting their intentions and naming the Executors, Trustees and Agents who will carry out their instructions.

In many instances, however, a person’s attempt to plan their estate may be met with contests and controversy. It is not uncommon for a testator to disinherit a close relative such as a child. It was recently reported in Examiner.com on March 25, 2013 by Joann Scheffler that the famous hair stylist, Vidal Sassoon, disinherited one of his sons. While Vidal Sassoon died in Los Angeles, New York allows a person to completely disinherit a child or anyone else except that a surviving spouse has a right under Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 5-1.1-A to elect to take a share of a decedent’s estate. Many times when a person who is a distribute (next of kin), such as a child, is disinherited, the result is a contested estate or a Will contest with claims of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity. A solidly prepared and executed Last Will and estate planning papers are imperative to defeat attacks by disgruntled relatives who expected but did not receive a large inheritance.

The desire to control the disposition of estate or trust assets can sometimes lead to rather extreme actions. A Florida multi-millionaire, John Goodman, recently adopted his 42 year old girlfriend. It appears that Mr. Goodman had been convicted of drunken driving and was facing a prison sentence and civil damages. By adopting his girlfriend it appears that Mr. Goodman would allow her to receive a large share of his trust fund that would have gone to his two other children. In the article by Beth Stebner that appeared in Mail Online on March 28, 2013, it was reported that the children had contested the adoption and that an Appeals Court in Florida voided the adoption as fraudulent and having no purpose.

An even more extreme example of an attempt to control an estate distribution was reported in The Northern Echo on March 27, 2013. It seems that a man who was the sole beneficiary under his parents’ Will sought to accelerate his inheritance by first failing to kill his mother and father in a fake road accident and then succeeding in having them die after he shot them in their home. In New York, a person who murders another to receive an inheritance is not allowed by the Courts to profit from their wrongdoing and they are disqualified from receiving their ill gotten gains.

While the above examples of actions to control an inheritance are not common, the important point is that an individual concerned with ensuring the proper disposition of his estate should obtain advice regarding New York Estate Planning. There is really no substitute for preparing an appropriate Will and other planning papers to minimize the likelihood of contests and controversy over an inheritance.

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The Administration of a New York Estate where a decedent dies intestate is determined by the laws of descent and distribution. As the New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts, New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) Section 4-1.1 provides the list of priority of distributees who are entitled to receive a share of a decedent’s estate when such person dies without a Last Will (“Intestacy”). This list begins with a decedent’s spouse and children, and then goes on to parents, brothers and sisters and more distant next of kin.

New York Estate Lawyers are familiar with the due diligence necessary to determine the identity of a decedent’s next of kin and that sometimes is required when a person’s family tree is unclear. In some cases, the Court may require a Kinship Hearing to determine the rightful estate beneficiaries.

In other situations, the identity of the Estate Heirs may be easy to determine. However, other factors may complicate the Estate Settlement process. For example, a person may be identified as the decedent’s spouse, thus having priority to inherit. Sometimes there are questions concerning the status of the spouse and whether there was a valid marriage ceremony or if a divorce occurred prior to the decedent’s death. Additionally, a spouse may be disqualified to inherit where the spouse “abandoned the deceased spouse”. EPTL 5-1.3.

A similar disqualification can occur with respect to the inheritance rights of a parent. Pursuant to EPTL 4-1.4 a parent will be disqualified from receiving a share of a decreased child’s estate where the parent “(1) has failed or refused to provide for the child or has abandoned such child….”

Questions concerning a parent’s alleged abandonment are typically resolved in Estate Litigation that occurs in the Surrogate’s Court in connection with the Administration Proceeding. Parental rights to inherit from a child’s estate may be a very valuable item. Recently, a case was presented to Surrogate Bruce Balter (Kings County) entitled Estate of Ricardo Ramos. This case was decided on March 6, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 25, 2013.

In Ramos the Court was asked by the Estate Administrator to approve a settlement of $900,000 for the wrongful death of the decedent who died due to an accident at work. The decedent’s distributees were his mother and father. The Administrator also asked the Court to allow the entire settlement to be distributed to the decedent’s mother claiming that the father had abandoned the decedent. Following the presentation of evidence to the Court it was found that the father abandoned the decedent “by neglecting or refusing to fulfill “the natural and legal obligations of training, care and guidance owed by a parent to a child . . . . .”

Estate issues regarding Kinship and determining Estate Distributees are important in all estate cases. As a New York Estate Lawyer I have represented many clients and assisted them in resolving concerns regarding inheritance rights.

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New York Estates and Trusts are comprised of various types of assets. Very often these assets include real estate in the form of a single family home or commercial property. When an Executor, Administrator or Trustee has the responsibility of protecting and handling real estate interests, the job of the Fiduciary can become very complicated.

In the most simple case, the Fiduciary must protect the property which means the real estate must be secured and it should be covered by insurance, if possible. Additionally, the property may contain tenants or third-party occupants whose identity must be determined along with any leases or rights of possession such occupants may have. In many instances it will be impractical to distribute the estate without selling the real property. The decedent’s Last Will or Intestate Distribution may require that many individuals receive a share of the property value which cannot be accomplished without liquidating the property into cash funds.

Also, the property may be subject to a mortgage or other liens or expenses that necessitate its sale in order that these debts or obligations be paid. Another consideration is the cost of maintaining the property and paying maintenance fees or property taxes. Such costs may require that the real property be sold rather than requiring the decedent’s estate to pay these continuing costs.

When dealing with real estate an estate may also become involved in litigation that affects the property. New York Estate Lawyers often have to represent their Fiduciary clients in connection with this type of Estate Litigation. A recent case decided by the New York Court of Appeals is an example of the problems an estate can face with Real Estate Litigation. White v. Farrell was decided by the Court of Appeals on March 21, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 22, 2013. In this case Paula and Leonard White had signed a contract to purchase real estate from the Farrells. However, after the contract was signed, the White’s decided that they wanted to cancel the contract because they claimed that drainage issues affecting the property was not fully disclosed to them. The Farrells refused to cancel the contract and ultimately claimed that the White’s defaulted by refusing to close title. During the course of the litigation Leonard White died and so the litigation continued and affected the interest he had in the proceedings. It appears that Paula was appointed as Executor of Leonard’s estate and represented the estate’s interest in the case. The Court of Appeals ultimately refused to grant summary judgment for the Farrells but did determine that the measure of damages suffered by the Farrells due to the Leonard’s breach of the Contract “is the difference, if any, between the Contract price and the fair market value of the property at the time of the breach.”

As can be seen from White, there are many issues that can impact Estate Settlement and the interests of a decedent. In many instances, I have represented Executors and Administrators where real estate is an estate asset. Such estates require that the Fiduciary take a very active role in managing the real property and protecting the estate’s interests especially where the property is the subject of claims and is affected by ongoing litigation.

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Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) is entitled “Proceedings for Appointment of a Guardian for Personal Needs or Property Management”. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published numerous posts regarding many different aspects of the Guardianship laws.

One of the main requirements for the appointment of a Guardian is that the Court must find that a person is “incapacitated” (MHL Section 81.02). However, the statute also provides that the Court may appoint a Guardian where a person “agrees to the appointment”. The vast majority of Guardianship cases typically involve a situation where a person is found to be incapacitated rather than just agreeing to such appointment. In fact, there appears to be sort of an inconsistency between having to declare someone to lack capacity while at the same time allowing them to consent or agree to have a Guardian.

Most recently, Justice H. Patrick Leis, III (Supreme Court, Suffolk County) confronted this issue in Matter of Buffalino which was decided on March 6, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 15, 2013. In Buffalino, a person identified as “Mr. D.”, who had been suffering with brain cancer, consented to the appointment of a Guardian. At that time, the Court found that Mr. D had the capacity to agree to the appointment. Thereafter, Mental Hygiene Legal Service, on behalf of Mr. D., sought to discharge the Guardian and the Guardian sought to expand his powers and keep the Guardianship in place.

The Court recognized that Article 81 did not clearly define the test to be used to decide whether someone has the capacity to agree to have a Guardian appointed. The Court clearly recognized that determining capacity to consent is not the same as the full review required by a Court hearing to show incapacity and that a finding of capacity to consent does not automatically result in a determination of incapacity.

After reviewing all of the evidence presented, the Court in Buffalino decided that the current Guardian could not demonstrate that Mr. D. required a Guardian and, therefore, discharged the Guardian.

The Buffalino case shows the problems and limitations that may be encountered when a Guardianship is based upon the consent of the person who is disabled. There appears to be an absence of certainty and the long-term ability of the Guardian to act on behalf of the ward. Due to these limitations and the inherent difficulty of determining whether an alleged incapacitated person has at least enough capacity to consent, there are generally few cases where the Guardianship is allowed based upon consent.

Unfortunately, the necessity for a Guardian where a person lacks capacity pervades both the rich and less fortunate. Recent events have been reported concerning Guardianships for film stars Mickey Rooney and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Bill Hetherman reported on March 4, 2013 in the Daily News.com that a probate court judge allowed Mickey Rooney’s Conservator to sell his million dollar home. In an article reported in mydesert.com on February 24, 2013, it was reported that a Court extended the Conservatorship over Zsa Zsa Gabor.

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New York Guardianship Attorneys are familiar with Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) which provides the statutory provisions governing Guardianships in New York. When a person is determined to be incapacitated and a Guardian is appointed for property management or personal needs, the Court will issue an Order and Judgment specifying the Guardian’s duties and powers. Thereafter, the County Clerk will issue a Commission which is the formal certification of the Guardian’s appointment.

A Guardianship is generally ended upon the death of the incapacitated person. The Court Order and Judgment usually sets forth the procedures that are to be followed when the incapacitated person dies. These requirements typically re-state portions of the MHL law. For example, MHL 81.44 entitled “Proceedings upon the death of an incapacitated person”, contains a number of requirements including that within twenty (20) days after the incapacitated person dies a Guardian must send a statement of death to the Court examiner and the estate personal representative. Also, within 150 days of death the Guardian must serve a statement of assets and deliver all guardianship property to the estate personal representative.

In addition to the requirements of MHL 81.44 other sections of the law also relate to post-death procedures. MHL 81.21(a)(14) allows a Guardian to pay funeral expenses for the incapacitated person and MHL 81.21 (a)(20) gives the power to “defend or maintain any judicial action or proceeding to a conclusion until an executor or administrator is appointed.”

As stated in MHL 81.44, the Guardian is required to prepare and file a final report or accounting. As can be seen, accepting an appointment as Guardian involves a great deal of responsibility. Both before and after the death of the incapacitated person, the Guardian must maintain detailed reports to be filed with the Court regarding the person’s assets, income, expenses and general welfare. When an incapacitated person dies, all of this information transfers over to the estate representative who must review the Guardian’s transactions and determine whether to provide final approval or acceptance of the Guardian’s conduct. If the estate representative, such as an Executor or Administrator, feels that the Guardian did not act properly, objections can be filed to the Guardianship Accounting and the Court will determine whether any corrections or other remedy is required.

Guardianship and estate proceedings often interconnect especially since many Article 81 Guardianship matters concern older individuals who have become disabled due to physical illness or other conditions such as dementia. As a Guardianship and Estate Lawyer I have represented individuals involved in all of these types of proceedings. Sometimes my clients have been involved in Guardianship proceedings and then have requested that I assist with representation in probate or administration matters after the incapacitated person has died.

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A New York Fiduciary such as an Executor or Administrator is appointed by the Surrogate’s Court after a person has died. As discussed in many posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, an Executor is appointed as an estate representative when a Last Will has been probated. The Executor is typically nominated or named in the Last Will. Sometimes the Court may need to appoint an estate representative who is not named in the Will. In such case, the title of the appointee is Administrator c.t.a.

An Administrator c.t.a. should not be confused with the typical appointment of an Administrator which occurs when a person dies intestate or without a Will. In these situations, the decedent’s distributees are entitled to be appointed in accordance with the statutory priority set forth in Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) Section 1001.

As talked about in prior posts, an estate fiduciary has many duties and obligations. At the core of a fiduciary’s responsibilities is to determine and collect the decedent’s assets, pay debts, expenses and taxes and distribute the net estate to the Estate Beneficiaries. In order to facilitate these functions an Executor and Administrator has many powers. Many of these powers are listed in New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) Section 11-1.1 entitled “Fiduciaries: Powers, Duties and Limitations”. For example, this statute authorizes a fiduciary to invest estate assets, maintain insurance, collect rents, sell property and make repairs to property.

All fiduciaries accept the fact that they have a great deal of responsibility. Depending upon the size and complexity of an estate, acting as a fiduciary can be a very time consuming job. Many of the tasks that need to be performed can be facilitated by a New York Estate Lawyer. When representing a New York Fiduciary, I routinely help a client collect estate assets and determine debts and obligations that need to be paid. However, there is no substitution for actual involvement and hands-on functions in Estate Settlement by the personal representative. Such obligations may be particularly demanding when the fiduciary lives out of state or in a foreign country. Out-of-State fiduciaries cannot provide a substitute for the many of the jobs they must perform.

A fiduciary cannot delegate his authority to someone else. He cannot give a Power of Attorney to anyone to perform the jobs that he is required to do. Thus, if a closing for the sale of real estate is to occur, the fiduciary is the only person with the authority to sign the deed and other transfer papers. The Executor or Administrator must either attend the closing or arrange to have all the necessary papers signed prior to the closing date and delivered when the deed is transferred. The fiduciary must also sign the Contract of Sale.

The prohibition against a fiduciary delegating his authority was recently recognized by the Court in Garmon v. County of Rockland, a case decided by U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Carter on February 11, 2013 and reported in New York Law Journal on February 22, 2013. In Garmon, the decedent had been arrested and died in police custody. Thereafter, the decedent’s daughter was appointed by the Surrogate’s Court as the Administrator of his estate. The daughter then executed a Power of Attorney in favor of the decedent’s father who then started a lawsuit to recover for the wrongful death of the decedent. The Court, however, dismissed the father’s lawsuit finding that the father was not the Estate Administrator and, therefore, did not have the authority to act on behalf of the decedent’s estate. Moreover, the Court found that the Power of Attorney was ineffectual since the daughter, as Administrator, could not delegate her duties regarding Estate Administration.

I have represented many Estate Executors and Administrators and assisted them with performing the various tasks associated with their responsibilities as a fiduciary. While a New York Estate Attorney cannot act in the place and stead of his client, I try to facilitate and expedite the Estate Settlement process so that my clients can fulfill their jobs as efficiently as possible.

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New York Court proceedings involving Incapacitated Persons require careful scrutiny by the Court. When a person who lacks capacity is a party to a legal action such as a defendant or respondent, it is imperative that such person’s rights are protected since their ability to defend themselves is impaired.

In the typical Guardianship Proceeding under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”), the Court will appoint either a Court Evaluator or an attorney to represent the Alleged Incapacitated Person (“AIP”). Sometimes the Court will appoint both an attorney and a Court Evaluator. MHL Section 81.10 entitled “Counsel” sets forth the circumstances in which an attorney will be appointed by the Court for the AIP. MHL 81.09 entitled “Appointment of Court Evaluator,” discusses such appointment. While a Court Evaluator does not act as the attorney for an AIP, the Evaluator will interact with the AIP and perform an investigation for the Court and can, among other duties, determine whether the Court should be informed to appoint an attorney for the AIP. All in all, the MHL statutes provide for a number of avenues to insure that the AIP is protected in the Court proceedings.

Serious issues arise, however, when a person who is suffering from an incapacity becomes involved in Court proceedings that are not covered by the MHL. For example, it is not uncommon for such a person to be ill and hospitalized or affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Due to these types of circumstances, a person may forget, or be unable, to pay bills such as their rent or mortgage. Non-payment of these items will eventually result in lawsuits for eviction or foreclosure. Unfortunately, someone who is sued by a landlord or mortgage company may have no one around to help them or to seek the appointment of an Article 81 Guardian. In such cases the impaired person is completely vulnerable and often unable to defend themselves in an ordinary eviction or foreclosure action. In these cases if the Court is aware of a person’s disability the Court has the authority to appoint a limited guardian to protect a person’s interest in the particular lawsuit. Section 1201 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules allows a Court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem for an adult person who is “incapable of adequately prosecuting or defending his rights.”

In many instances the Court may be unaware of a person’s condition since the person, due to lack of understanding or ability, merely defaults and does not appear before the Court to represent his interests. In a recent case entitled Financial Freedom Acquisition LLC v. Evelyn L. Jackson, the Honorable Charles J. Markey (Supreme Court, Queens County), in a decision dated December 24, 2012 and reported in a New York Law Journal on January 29, 2013, dismissed a foreclosure lawsuit against an individual who had been in a nursing home at the time of the Summons and Complaint were allegedly served on her. After an extensive investigation by the Court appointed Guardian ad Litem, the Court found that the property owner lacked the mental capacity to understand the Court papers and it was questionable whether the Court papers were properly served upon the homeowner in the nursing home.

As a New York Guardianship Attorney, I have represented many clients involved in Article 81 proceedings. Sometimes, these proceedings are precipitated by other Court actions such as landlord/tenant evictions or foreclosure lawsuits that require the appointment of a Guardian to help protect the rights of an AIP. In these matters, it may be that multiple Court actions are occurring at the same time and quick action is needed so that an AIP’s home is not lost through no fault of their own.

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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.

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