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The execution or signing of a New York Last Will is subject to very strict statutory requirements. While the Will signing ceremony may seem somewhat formal and old-fashioned the requirements of the statutes must be adhered to for the Will to be admitted to probate or validated.

As previously reviewed in earlier posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 3-2.1 provides the “formal requirements” for the “Execution and attestation of wills”. A summary of the requirements includes the following:

(i) The Will must be signed at the end.
(ii) No effect is given to any matter which is after the signature or added after the
Will is executed.
(iii) The Will should be signed in the presence of the attesting witnesses.
(iv) The testator should declare to the witnesses that the paper is his Will.
(v) There should be at least two (2) witnesses to the Will.

Sometimes obtaining the mandatory two (2) witnesses is not an easy task. If the Will is signed in an attorney’s office it is typically easy for the supervising attorney to obtain independent attorneys or office staff to act as witnesses. However, sometimes due to inconvenience or a testator’s inability to travel, the Will execution ceremony is performed in a residence or other location. In such situations, controlling the execution ceremony so that it complies with the statutory requirements is more difficult.

Attention is called also to EPTL Section 3-3.2 entitled “Competence of attesting witness who is beneficiary; application to nuncupative Will.” Essentially, this statute provides, in part, that where an attesting witness receives a benefit under the Will, such disposition is to be deemed void unless there are at least two other witnesses who do not receive a beneficial disposition. Thus, if the benefiting witness’s testimony is needed to validate the Will, the disposition is voided and lost.

A recent case decided by Surrogate John M. Czygier (Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court) on December 14, 2012 and reported in the NYLJ on December 31, 2012 cited as “Probate Proceeding 2012-337″, is an example of a problem presented by a witness having a beneficial interest in a Will. In this case, the Will had a provision whereby a bequest of $100,000 was made to the “Peconic Landing Employees Appreciation Fund.” All three attesting witnesses were employees of Peconic Landing and the Court found that they would benefit from the bequest to the Fund. Therefore, the Surrogate determined that the witnesses received a “beneficial disposition’ and voided the $100,000 bequest to the Fund.

As can be seen from the above decision it is important that the preparation and execution of a Last Will be done with an eye towards potential problems in probating the Will. New York Estates Lawyers typically are familiar with the statutory requirements for Will executions and probate and work closely with their clients to achieve their estate planning goals.

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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 various rights afforded to persons by the New York estate laws generally require that a person be related by blood to a decedent. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 4-1.1 provides the relationship of individuals who can inherit an estate of a decedent who died without a Last Will. The priority established in this statute begins with a surviving spouse and issue and continues through the family tree to great-grandchildren of grandparents. Section (b) of the law provides that the “decedent’s relatives of the half blood shall be treated as if they were relatives of the whole blood.” Thus, half sisters and half brothers, for example, achieve inheritance rights. The statute further recognizes rights of adopted persons. Such familial relationships also afford a person certain rights to contest a Last Will.

However, absent an adoption, a child of a natural parent who has remarried has no rights with regard to the estate of the step-parent. This situation can present many problems, particularly in the case where the child is young. For example, if the child’s natural parent dies, the deceased parent’s estate or a large portion of it may pass to the surviving spouse if there is no Last Will or the Last Will does not provide for the child. Once the surviving spouse has received the estate property, the surviving child has no rights or expectation regarding the estate of the step-parent since there is no blood-relation between them. If the step-parent dies without a Last Will all of the step-parent’s estate, which includes the assets derived from the step-child’s deceased natural parent, may go to the step-parent’s blood relatives. Unfortunately, the step-child would be excluded under the law from participating as a distributee or next of kin of the step-parent.

This problem was recently recognized in Australia where laws have been changed to protect the interests of step-children. An article by Amanda Banks appearing in the West Australian dated December 3, 2012, entitled “Stepchildren get will rights” discusses this topic.

The best remedy for disinheritance of a step-child is for the child’s natural parent to prepare a comprehensive estate plan which includes a Last Will, Living Will, Health Care Proxy and even a Living Trust. The provisions of these documents can provide for estate assets to go to a child and also that the child be appointed as an Executor or Health Care Agent. If the child is a minor, a trust can be created with an independent trustee to protect the property that is given to the child. While disinheriting a child is allowed under New York, the unintended disinheritance of a child in a second marriage situation can have devastating life-long financial consequences.

Many individuals believe that estate planning is only for those that are wealthy and want to limit estate tax liability. In fact, there are many family situations where there are second marriages, adopted children, unknown heirs or other family concerns unassociated with tax issues which require extensive estate planning and foresight.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed many of the proceedings that can arise in the Surrogate’s Court such as the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court and Nassau Surrogate’s Court. Each of the counties in New York State has its own Surrogate’s Court.

The various proceedings include Probate Proceedings, Intestate Administration Proceedings, Accounting Proceedings, Kinship Proceedings, and various other Miscellaneous Proceedings such as proceedings to revoke the appointment of a fiduciary.

In order for the Court to determine the issues in the cases that are filed, the Court must be certain that all parties interested in the case have received a proper notice and have had an opportunity to appear before the Court and protect their interests. Very often, the Notice that a party receives is a Citation or an Order and Show Cause. These Notices must be properly served on a party and provide information as to the date, time and place of the Court hearing.

It is not uncommon in many cases that one of the parties may not be legally capable to protect their interests or appear in Court. An infant (i.e., someone under age 18) or a person who is incapacitated cannot act for his or her own welfare. When these situations arise, there are a number of avenues that can be followed so that the incompetent party can participate in the Court proceeding.

With regard to an infant, he or she may appear by a Court appointed guardian of his or her property. See Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) Section 402. This section also provides that an incapacitated person may appear by a Court appointed guardian. Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law provides an extensive procedure for the appointment of a Guardian of the person and property for an incapacitated person.

When an infant or other disabled person has not had a Guardian appointed to represent them or when the Court feels that such Guardian cannot adequately represent them, the Court can appoint a Guardian ad Litem. SCPA 403 provides for the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem selected by the Court but also provides a procedure whereby the Guardian ad Litem can be nominated by an infant over 14 years old or his parent or guardian. Of course, such nomination is subject to approval and appointment by the Court.

In a recent case entitled a Will of Nanaline Duke, decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on November 28, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on December 10, 2012, the Court allowed the family members to nominate the Guardian ad Litem.

Typically, the Guardian ad Litem will act as the representative of the person under disability and protect his or her interest in the Court case. SCPA 405 provides the procedure for the Guardian ad Litem to be paid for services rendered.

Estate Litigation involves many complex issues and procedures. As a New York Estate Lawyer I have represented many clients where the Court has appointed a Guardian ad Litem to represent a party’s interest. I have also acted as the attorney for Guardians who are acting on behalf of incapacitated individuals. For example, in a situation where a decedent dies intestate and his or her sole heir is incapacitated, I have petitioned the Court to appoint the sole heir as an Article 81 Guardian who then had the authority to act as the Administrator of the decedent’s estate.

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The relationship of marriage is among the most basic considerations in Estate planning and Estate administration.

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.

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New York Estate Planning Lawyers are often asked by their clients about making gifts to family members or friends or charities. When considering a gift there are a number of items that should be part of a list of basic considerations.

1. It is important to identify the person to whom the gift is to be made. While this seems rather basic, it is not always easy to provide a gift to the person to whom you want to benefit. For example, if you desire to make a gift to a grandchild or other person who is a minor, some alternative method such as a trust or a Uniform Gift to Minors Act account may be needed since the minor cannot receive the asset in his or her own right. It may be that the donor of the gift may not want to make a gift that is in a trust or a restricted account and may feel comfortable just providing funds outright to a minor’s parent with the confidence that the parent will use the gift solely for the minor’s benefit.

A similar situation may arise where an individual desires to gift assets to a person who is disabled or incapacitated. Such situations may require the establishment of a Supplemental Needs Trust to protect the governmental benefits received by the intended donee.

2. Another consideration is the financial effect that the gift may have on the donor and the donee. Thought should be given as to whether the donor can afford to make the gift and whether the loss of the asset will affect the donor’s standard of living or future retirement planning. As to the donee, it should be determined whether receipt of the asset might increase the donee’s income tax bracket or create complications regarding the donee’s estate plan by exceeding federal or state exemptions. Additionally, the donee’s physical condition may be a factor since it would not be beneficial to provide assets to a person whose medical costs may skyrocket, especially where those costs might be paid by government programs such as Medicaid.

3. Of course, the gift tax impact of any gift is always important. This is especially true at present since the current Federal tax laws allow a combined estate and gift tax exemption of just over $5,000,000. In view of the uncertainty of the future of this exemption after December 31, 2012, many high net worth individuals are looking to use up their exemption by gifting assets having a value of up to $5,000,000 before the end of the year.

While such a planning step appears to be beneficial, there are certain circumstances where the gifting of assets can be troublesome. A recent article in Forbes on November 19, 2012 by Peter J. Reilly, “IRS Position on Wandry Decision Makes 2012 Gifting More Difficult“, provides an excellent discussion of some mine-fields. As reported in the article, the IRS has announced its non-acquiesence to a Tax Court memorandum opinion which essentially allowed a donor, through a formula clause, to modify his gift percentage interests of a family LLC after the IRS had revalued same.

In the event the IRS revalues a gift after an audit, the possibility exists that the $5,000,000 exemption gift is determined to really be a $7,000,000 gift resulting in thousands of dollars of unintended gift taxes being due.

As in all estate and trust and estate planning contexts, it is necessary to consider both the practical and tax implications of asset transfers and the manner in which such dispositions are made, whether by a gift, a Last Will and Testament and a Trust. Discussions with other family members and advisors such estate planning lawyers and accountants is the best method to avoid unintended results.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many items concerning Estate Litigation. Litigation in New York Estates in common in the context of a Will Contest where a distributee (next of kin) such as a child is either completely excluded from the Will or left a bequest that is less than expected. Other typical situations are where a Will disposes of an estate to unrelated third parties such as a caretaker or friend. Allegations concerning undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity or duress usually result from such occurrences. Where a Will is contested, the focus is not only on the decedent but also on the witnesses to the Will and the attorney draftsperson who can testify and shed light on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the estate plan and the Will execution process.

However, not all estate disputes concern bequests that emanate from a Will after death. Many times controversy surrounds inter vivos or lifetime gifts that are made by a decedent. Such gifts can be subject to attack based upon similar grounds of lack of capacity. Often, the lifetime gifts appear inconsistent with, and actually can destroy, an estate plan that the decedent set forth in a Last Will or Living Trust document.

Gift litigation can take place in different forms. Sometimes, prior to a person’s death, an Article 81 Guardianship proceeding may be commenced due to a person’s incapacity. Section 81.29 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law gives the Court the power to revoke transfers that were made by an incapacitated person. In situations that come to light after a decedent’s death, an estate fiduciary, such as Executor or Administrator, can seek to recover assets for the estate where the life-time transfer appears to be improper. Proceedings for the turn-over of assets are provided in New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 2103.

An estate fiduciary has the responsibility to attempt to marshal and collect all of the assets that rightfully belong to the decedent. Demonstrating that a person lacked the capacity to make a certain lifetime gift is not easy. An example of the difficulty in prevailing with such a claim is shown in the recent case of Estate of Magda Cordell McHale, decided by Surrogate Barbara Howe of Erie County on September 28, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on October 9, 2012.

In McHale, a beneficiary under the decedent’s Last Will objected to the fiduciary accounting due to the failure to include certain charitable gifts the decedent made shortly before her death. After a hearing the Court concluded that the decedent had both the “intent” and “capacity” to make the pre-death gift.

Cases such as McHale present many difficult issues involving estate settlement and fiduciary responsibility. I have represented individual family members who have felt that such pre-death gifts were the result of undue influence. I have similarly defended individuals who have received pre-death gifts where assertions have been made that such gifts were the result of undue influence. In all cases, it is important to review the history of the decedent, the expressions of intent that may have been made and the relationships been the various parties in order to have a full and clear picture about the proprietary of the disputed transfer.

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New York Guardianship proceedings can be found to be an appropriate remedy in varied situations. Typically, the Article 81 Guardianship is associated with an elderly person suffering from an illness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or a person who has suffered a severe physical event such as a stroke or heart attack. These situations are a garden variety basis for the appointment of a Guardian for property management and personal needs.

New York Guardianship attorneys, however, are familiar with the many other situations in which a Guardian may be needed. For example, in many instances, younger individuals may be incapacitated due to mental or physical disabilities that are birth related. In these situations, a Guardian may be necessitated not only for personal needs but also to handle monetary awards or funds the person may be entitled to due to a settlement from a lawsuit. The Guardianship Court is often asked to allow the establishment of a Supplemental Needs Trust to hold these funds so that the incapacitated person does not lose the benefit of governmental programs such as Social Security Disability or Medicaid.

Many guardianship cases also involve issues relating to the housing of the person who is incapacitated. Such person may live in a rental apartment or even own a cooperative apartment. Due to the person’s incapacity, the rent or maintenance due on the apartment may go unpaid and subject the person to possible eviction or termination of their leasehold interest.

Other events that may result in eviction proceedings or lease terminations are where the tenant creates a nuisance by engaging in loud or abusive conduct or exhibits Collyers Syndrome which is the excessive hoarding and accumulation of items in the apartment. These activities create a climate where both the incapacitated individual and other tenants in the building are at risk.

When a person is exhibiting the above described behavior, the building management may commence eviction proceedings or, sometimes, contact Adult Protective Services of the New York City Human Resources Administration to intervene. APS will attempt to provide the tenant with assistance, if possible.

A Manhattan Guardianship lawyer, Queens Guardianship lawyer or Brooklyn Guardianship lawyer who represents a family member attempting to obtain appointment as a Guardian,
can ask the Guardianship Judge to issue a stay or injunction to stop the eviction proceedings of the incapacitated person until a Guardian has been appointed. Such relief is usually granted by the Court.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts that a Guardian will be appointed by the Court if the Court determines by “clear and convincing evidence” that a person is incapacitated. New York Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) section 81.02. When a Court is considering the case, it will review the ability of the person to manage activities of daily living such as “money management”, “grooming”, and “housing”. MHL section 81.03 (h). Therefore, when a person fails to pay rent or creates a nuisance or dangerous condition in an apartment, such activity is evidence of incapacity.

I have represented many clients who have petitioned to be Guardians in situations where their friends or relatives are on the verge of eviction or lease termination due to failure to pay rent or creating a nuisance condition. In these cases, quick action and Court filings are often needed to obtain a stay of the eviction and prevent the loss of the incapacitated person’s apartment. Once appointed, a Guardian is usually able to pay the back rent or correct the nuisance condition so that the apartment which is the incapacitated person’s home can be retained.

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The New York Probate of a Last Will can be relatively smooth depending upon many factors. Of course, everyone has heard stories of feuds over a decedent’s estate and Will Contests that are both lengthy and costly. However, for the most part, the probating of a Will is not controversial.

Essentially, the probate process is the validating of the Will by the Court so that the terms of a Will regarding the disposition of the estate are authorized by the Surrogate’s Court. The Executors or Trustees who may be named in the Will are issued Letters Testamentary or Letters of Trusteeship by the Court. These fiduciaries are then empowered to handle estate or trust affairs.

The Probate Proceeding requires the filing of a petition with the Court along with other papers such as affidavits from attesting witnesses and possibly Waives and Consents from other interested parties. Sometimes, the Court must issue a Citation to be served on interested parties who do not voluntarily consent to the probate of the Will. The Surrogate’s Court Citation is like a Summons and provides a Court date for the parties to appear in Court and advise the Court as to their intentions. The Citation is served on the parties either personally or sometimes by mail.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has provided many posts regarding various aspects of probate. The preparation of a clear and complete estate plan which includes a Last Will is the first and, maybe, the most important step in facilitating an easy probate proceeding. Problems often arise when a decedent’s Will has provisions that are unclear or ambiguous. The execution of a number of different Wills over a short period of time where beneficiary shares are drastically changed also leads to post-death disputes and Will Objections based upon lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.

Of course, there is no guaranteed method of leaving a Last Will and avoiding a potential Will Contest or Estate Litigation. There are, however, some strategies that can lessen the likelihood of fighting. Many Wills contain an In Terrorem Clause or no-contest clause that provides that anyone who attempts to challenge the validity of the Will is to forfeit their inheritance if they are unsuccessful. Also, the creation of a Living Trust can avoid the probate process entirely although these trusts are subject to Court challenge.

The Estates, Powers and Trusts Law and Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act provide many provisions regarding the creation, execution and interpretation of Wills and the procedures to probate and challenge a testamentary document such as a Will.

Experienced New York Estate Lawyers are familiar with the laws regarding estate administration. It is essential that persons who are nominated as Executors in a Will or beneficiaries or other interested persons obtain advice as to the steps to follow in a probate matter and the likelihood that they may or may not be successful regarding their desired outcome.

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Estate litigation occurs on a daily basis in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Nassau and other New York Surrogate’s Courts in counties across the state. The variety of the issues that are the subject of dispute often appear to be endless and usually present rather interesting problems. New York estate lawyers confront many complex issues and provide assistance to their clients in attempting to resolve these matters that can disrupt and delay estate settlement.

Estate court cases occur throughout the United States and it is helpful to review a few current controversies since the situations presented can easily relate to a New York decedent.

In one recent incident a Missouri attorney has been accused of murdering her father in a very unusual manner. As reported in an article by Martha Neil posted on October 2, 2012 in the ABA journal.com, the attorney apparently shot her father, but after he survived being shot, the attorney used a forged health care proxy to have life saving treatment for him discontinued.

Under Section 2981 of the New York Public Health Law a person can appoint a health care agent by preparing a Health Care Proxy. The statute, along with companion statutory provisions, contains many specific provisions regarding the process to create the proxy. For example, it must be “signed and dated by the adult in the presence of two adult witnesses who shall also sign the proxy.” PHL sec 2981 2(a).

It should be recognized that a Health Care Proxy relates to health care decisions. In New York an individual can also appoint an agent to make financial or property decisions. However, to do so a different document called a Power of Attorney must be prepared and executed in accordance with the statutory rules beginning at New York General Obligations Law section 5-1501.

New York estate planning lawyers typically discuss with clients the benefits of having a Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney as part of their estate and financial planning papers. As can be seen from the case of the Missouri attorney and her father, it is also important to select as an agent a person that can be trusted and will act in the principal’s best interest.

A different set of circumstances was recently reported regarding a father who sued his daughter when she questioned his handling of her trust. As reported by Barbara Ross and Bill Hutchinson in an article in the New York Daily News on October 23, 2012 a Manhattan attorney sued his daughter for libel after she filed a request with the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court to have him provide an accounting of her trust.

New York estate and Surrogate’s Court laws provide that all fiduciaries, whether they are Executors, Administrators or Trustees, are obligated to provide an accounting of their activities. The Court can require a fiduciary to account and a beneficiary can request that the fiduciary be compelled to account. Surrogate’s Court accounting proceedings can be very complicated since the fiduciary may have had many financial transactions over many years and the advice of estate attorneys and also accountants is generally very helpful.

I have represented many clients in connection with fiduciary accounting proceedings including individuals who are preparing and filing accounting papers and beneficiaries who are reviewing the accountings. When an interested party disapproves of the actions of the fiduciary, the common procedure is to file objections to the accounting with the Court and the interested party may fully investigate all financial transactions and present the objections to the Court at a hearing.

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