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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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The New York Estate Settlement process may require that an Estate Tax Return be filed for a decedent’s estate. Not all estates are required to file returns or pay an estate tax. In New York, the estate value threshold for having to file the return is $1,000,000. The Federal requirement is equivalent to the exclusion amount which for 2013 is a gross value of $5,250,000.

Even in an estate that is required to file a return, no estate tax may be due on account of various deductions such as the marital or charitable deduction or because of debts or liens such as mortgages or other claims. The gross estate value of an estate is comprised of all of the decedent’s assets that are considered under the tax laws to be includable for estate tax purposes. These items include assets that were owned by the decedent in his name alone at death such as bank accounts, brokerage accounts, real estate, etc. The gross estate also includes assets owned by the decedent that were held jointly with a right of survivorship, and other items where there is a named beneficiary such as life insurance, retirement accounts (i.e., IRA’s or 401K’s) and Totten Trusts.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed that assets owned in a decedent’s own name typically are administered by an Executor or Administrator as part of the administration estate. Property that has named beneficiaries or joint owners is transferred automatically to such beneficiary/joint owner upon the decedent’s death and is not subject to estate administration.

Regardless of the nature of the assets, where an estate is subject to estate tax, the tax must be paid due to the inclusion of such item for tax purposes. The issue that is always presented is what source is responsible for the payment of the estate tax – is it the decedent’s administration estate or is payment the responsibility of the beneficiary or joint owner who received the property. Of course, like many answers in the legal world, the response is “it depends.”

In the first instance, the tax laws generally require that the estate fiduciary (i.e. Executor or Administrator) is responsible for paying the tax.

It is a common practice that a provision in a decedent’s Last Will provides that all of the decedent’s estate taxes be paid from the decedent’s administration estate which is the property owned by the decedent in his own name and passing under the Will. Such a provision would exempt from the payment of the tax any beneficiary of property passing outside of the Will such as insurance or jointly held assets. This result may not be fair to the persons who are beneficiaries under the Will since they are required to pay the estate taxes allocable to the assets passing to the other outside beneficiaries.

In order to avoid an unintended burden of estate taxes being placed on unsuspecting beneficiaries, a New York Estate Attorney will examine a client’s entire portfolio of assets and discuss the tax issues with a client so that estate taxes can be properly allocated.

The basic law in New York is that each asset is to share its allocable portion of estate taxes. These principals are set forth in New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 2-1.8 entitled “Apportionment of Federal and State Estate or Other Death Taxes; Fiduciary to Collect Taxes from Property Taxed and Transferees Thereof“. Therefore, if there is no specific direction in a Last Will or other instrument that changes this allocation, all of the outside beneficiaries must contribute their allocable share of estate taxes. EPTL Section 2-1.8 even allows the Surrogate to direct such persons to pay their share of the tax.

Estate Administration can be a very complex process. Calculating the amount of estate taxes that may be payable and determining the persons that are ultimately responsible for such payment adds even more responsibility to the job which each Executor and Trustee is required to perform. Since Estate fiduciaries are responsible for the proper payment of estate tax it is important that they obtain guidance from Estate Lawyers and tax professionals so that the interests of the estate and all beneficiaries are protected.

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There are legions of articles and information postings explaining the benefits of having an Estate Plan. New York Estate Planning, as well as planning in all other states, requires that an individual take the time and consideration to develop the precise manner in which assets, financial affairs and personal matters can be handled in the event of death or incapacity.

However, despite all of the pronouncements and guidance that is offered, New York Estate Lawyers know that a lack of estate planning or an ineffective plan is often the rule rather than the exception. In a recent post by Russ Rankin at churchexecutive.com entitled “Survey: Most SBC pastors not prepared to die“, it was reported that almost 40 percent of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention have no estate planning documents. It appears that this lack of planning is remarkable since members of the clergy would seemingly interact with parishioners on a day to day basis who face the personal hardships of having to deal with the death and incapacity of family members and friends.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed Estate Planning Documents in many posts. These documents include a Last Will, Health Care Proxy, Living Will, General Power of Attorney and Living Trust. When creating an estate plan, an individual should consult with a legal advisor to determine which documents are most suited to his circumstances. Specific provisions and beneficiary designations in a Last Will or Trust, as well as other documents, may need to be crafted to deal with particular circumstances and to insure that a person’s intentions are carried out without confusion or delay.

Interestingly, in Mr. Rankin’s article, the author notes that over half of the pastors believed that when a person dies intestate (without a Will), the decedent’s family determines what happens to the deceased person’s assets. The fact is in New York, like most states, when a person dies intestate New York law determines the persons who inherit the estate. These persons are called distributees (i.e., next of kin) and the order of priority of inheritance is set out in New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.1. Also, typically an Administrator will be appointed from this group of distributees after a petition is filed with the Surrogate’s Court in New York.

Since it is always best to create an estate plan, which includes naming one’s Executors and Trustees rather than leaving their selection to an artificial state law, steps should be taken to put a plan in place and to update the plan periodically.

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Estate Planning in New York requires a review and understanding of all of a person’s assets and property interests. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed that a Last Will typically controls or directs the disposition of assets that are owned or held in a decedent’s name alone.

Other assets may pass from a decedent to a beneficiary by operation of law. For example, jointly owned property such as a bank account or real estate is automatically transferred to the surviving joint owner upon death. Similarly, named beneficiaries of life insurance and pension or retirement funds directly receive these assets when a decedent dies. Typically, a Last Will does not control the disposition of these funds without very explicit directions. Similar principals apply to a bank account known as a “Totten Trust”. Such bank accounts are usually created by a decedent and are titled in the name of the decedent “ITF” with the name of the beneficiary appearing thereafter. During his lifetime, a decedent would be completely free to add or subtract funds to the account and the “ITF” beneficiary would have no rights to any of the funds. However, upon the death of the account owner, all of the funds pass automatically to the “ITF” beneficiary. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 7-5.2 sets forth many of the rules regarding these types of accounts.

New York Estate Lawyers are aware that an estate plan and creating a Last Will must take into consideration these accounts. The provisions of the Will may provide for property dispositions to persons other than those named as a beneficiary of a Totten Trust. Such an estate plan may not reflect a decedent’s actual intent and may also lead to Surrogate’s Court Litigation.

An example of the potential for contests regarding estate settlement and Totten Trusts was recently provided in a case decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on January 10, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on January 28, 2013. In Matter of Wess, the decedent died leaving a Totten Trust in the name of her former lover in a sum of over $400,000. The Executor of the decedent’s Will claimed that the bank account containing these funds should not be found to be a Totten Trust passing directly to the friend. Instead, the Executor claimed that the bank funds should pass to the estate under the Will.

Based upon a review of the bank records, 1099 Forms, testimony of bank personnel and other evidence, the Court determined that there was a valid Totten Trust. Thus, the bank funds passed directly to the decedent’s friend and not pursuant to the Will provisions.

The Wess case demonstrates that Estate Planning in New York must include a careful review of how assets are owned. If Will provisions conflict with beneficiary designations on assets such as bank accounts, it is essential that a person understand where his assets will go upon death so that his intent is carried out. Moreover, if the intention is that a Totten Trust beneficiary receives an account and that a Will does not control this asset, it would be advantageous to confirm that the bank account name and bank records are absolutely clear as to this intention. In Wess, although the Totten Trust was upheld, the bank had lost the signature cards and destroyed other old papers associated with the original creation of the Totten Trust account.

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