The most common form of an estate plan is typically one where one spouse creates a Last Will that leaves an entire estate to the other spouse. The New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) provides in section 5-1.1.A that one spouse cannot disinherit the other spouse. This section entitled “Right of election by surviving spouse”, essentially directs that a disinherited spouse is entitled to elect to receive an amount that is the greater of $50,000 or one-third of the decedent’s net estate.
Many other laws are intertwined with the status of married persons for estate purposes. The Federal estate tax and New York estate tax both allow unlimited deductions for assets that pass from one spouse to the other. Additionally, on the Federal level, there is “portability” or transfer of the unused portion of the estate tax exemption between spouses.
Thus, whether a decedent is married at the time of death can have a tremendous impact on a person claiming to be a surviving spouse and also on other possible beneficiaries such as children. The status of marriage and spousal rights can be challenged in Surrogate’s Court proceedings related to an estate. One such challenge may derive from EPTL 5-1.4 which provides that a divorce or other dissolution of a marriage may revoke a disposition in a Last Will or other beneficiary designation. If there has been a divorce, provisions benefiting a spouse that are found in a decedent’s Last Will which was executed prior to the divorce may be a nullity. Also, EPTL section 5-1.2 entitled, “Disqualification as surviving spouse”, sets forth that a surviving spouse may be disqualified if he or she “abandoned” the decedent.
It is usually not easy to demonstrate that a surviving spouse abandoned the deceased spouse. Numerous factors must be proved including that the abandonment was not consented to by the decedent. In a recent case entitled Estate of Hama, decided by Surrogate Kristen Booth Glen, a Manhattan Surrogate, and reported in the New York Law Journal on December 3, 2012, the Court declined to find an abandonment because the decedent had consented to the reconciliation of the surviving spouse with a prior paramour.
As a New York Estate Planning and Probate attorney, I routinely gather information from a client concerning the client’s current marital status and whether there have been any prior marriages that have ended in a divorce. In situations of divorce it is not uncommon that a person may have signed a Divorce Settlement Agreement or received a Divorce Judgment that creates obligations to maintain life insurance or make other monetary payments that would be obligations of an estate after death.
The variety of Surrogate’s Court proceedings where marital status or post-death claims can arise include Probate Proceedings, Administration Proceedings, Kinship Proceedings and Accounting Proceedings. It is essential that in all of these proceedings, as well as in developing an accurate and comprehensive estate plan, a person’s relationships must be determined and fully documented. This is especially important where marital status or spousal rights are in doubt or subject to question.