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A New York Estate is subject to potential estate taxes. The tax is imposed under both Federal and New York State laws. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously talked about estate taxes. It is the duty of an estate fiduciary such as an Administrator or Executor to determine whether a decedent’s estate must pay any estate tax and to actually pay the tax.

Both the Federal and New York estate tax is due to be filed and paid 9 months following a decedent’s date of death. An automatic extension of 6 months is available to file the tax return. The information required to be reported is a detailed list of all of the assets, debts, expenses and other financial data that provide an economic snap-shot of an estate.

Estate assets are typically valued as of the decedent’s date of death. This gross estate includes all items owned or controlled by the decedent or in which the decedent had an interest as of his death. Such assets include bank accounts, real estate, stocks, bonds and other items having value such as copyrights, trademarks and membership interests in businesses like a partnership or limited liability company.

During the course of estate settlement, it may be easy to obtain date of death values for assets such as bank accounts, real estate, stocks and bonds. Other items such as business interests may be difficult to value and subject to dispute. Upon the review or audit of an estate tax return, the Federal or State tax authorities may contest the value of an asset or deductible expense or liability.

An example of such estate tax dispute is presently occurring with the estate of the late pop star Michael Jackson. As reported by Patrick Temple-West in Reuters.com on August 23, 2013, the IRS claims that the Jackson estate owes Federal tax and penalties of $702 million. In the article “US Agency says Michael Jackson estate owes $702 million in taxes“, it is reported that the estate claimed in its tax filing, among other things, the image and likeness of Jackson had a value of only $2,105 while the IRS placed its value at $434 million.

Similar tax disputes can arise concerning the value of estate tax deductions such as liabilities, debts or expenses incurred in estate administration. As can be seen, potential estate taxes should be a major consideration in estate planning. This is particularly so when a large estate tax liability is expected and there are limited liquid assets available to pay the tax bill. Since the taxes need to be paid within 9 months after a death, there may be very little time to sell such items such as real estate or a cooperative apartment in order to obtain the funds to pay the tax. In many instances the use of life insurance or other pre-death financial planning can help solve this post-death liquidity dilemma.

At the present time, the Federal estate tax exemption is $5,250,000 and the New York exemption is $1,000,000. Also, both jurisdictions allow an unlimited marital deduction. However, the challenge presented in an estate plan is to limit the tax liability when a potentially taxable estate is to be ultimately paid to a non-spouse. In such situations the taxable amounts cannot be protected by the marital deduction.

It is essential that a New York Estate Planning attorney be provided with information regarding a person’s asset values and possible estate tax deductions. In this manner the appropriate tax plan and beneficiary designations can be formulated in documents such as a Last Will or Living Trust.

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Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) contains the provisions regarding the appointment of a Guardian for a person who is incapacitated. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed that the statute provides powers for a Guardian for property management (MHL 81.21) and for personal needs (MHL 81.22).

In most Guardianship proceedings the Court will appoint a Court Evaluator (MHL 81.09). A Court Evaluator is named in the Order to Show Cause that is signed by the Court when the Guardianship case is commenced. The Court Evaluator’s job is essentially to perform an investigation of the case and prepare a written report and recommendation for the Court. This investigation and report concerns such issues as the incapacity of the person alleged to be in need of a Guardian, the nature of such person’s property and assets and who is the most appropriate person to be appointed as Guardian.

In many instances the time expenditures for a Court Evaluator to perform a full investigation, prepare a report, and attend all Court hearings can be quite extensive. This is especially so when the Guardianship proceeding is contested. A Contested Guardianship Proceeding can involve issues regarding whether the alleged incapacitated person actually needs a Guardian or there may be intra-family fighting as to which family member is most appropriate to be appointed as Guardian.

Regardless of the complexity of the case, the Court Evaluator is usually entitled to be paid a fee for the services incurred in performing the job. MHL 81.09(f) states that when the Court appoints a Guardian and grants the petition, the Court can award a reasonable fee to be paid from the incapacitated person’s assets. However, when the Guardianship application is denied, the Court may direct that a Court Evaluator’s fee be paid from the alleged incapacitated person’s assets and/or directly by the person who commenced the proceeding.

Sometimes, the alleged incapacitated person dies during the Guardianship case. In this circumstance, the statute provides that the Court may award a fee to be paid by the person’s estate and/or the petitioner. A recent case decided by Justice Alexander W. Hunter, Jr. (Supreme Court, Bronx County) entitled Matter of Soto, decided on August 2, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on August 29, 2013, concerned this latter situation. In Soto, the Court had issued an Order and Judgment appointing a Guardian and had awarded a fee to the Court Evaluator. However, before the Guardianship actually commenced the incapacitated person died. Therefore, the Guardian could not pay the Court Evaluator’s fee. Thereafter, when the Court Evaluator made an application to the Court to have the petitioner personally pay the fee, the Court denied the application and directed the Court Evaluator to file a claim in the Surrogate’s Court against the incapacitated person’s estate for payment of the fees.

Guardianship cases can be very complicated and require the assistance of an experienced New York Guardianship Attorney. I have represented clients who have filed petitions to be appointed as Guardians for family members and friends. All aspects of these matters need to be considered including the necessary proof of incapacity and the manner in which expenses such as Court Evaluator’s fees are to be paid.

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The Contest of a Will in New York, as in most other jurisdictions, brings to mind a tense scene inside a courtroom where a trial is ongoing between a decedent’s family and some interloper such as a nursing aide or other non-relative who has forced an old and unknowing decedent to disinherit his family. While many Will contests end in a trial, most such estate litigations are settled or disposed of before a trial in the Surrogate’s Court.

Additionally, a trial is the last of many different types of procedures and proceedings that comprise a case involving a dispute regarding the validity of a Will. The proceedings typically begin with the Probate Proceeding where a Probate Petition is filed with the Surrogate’s Court seeking a Will’s validation. At that point various statutes and rules contained in the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) and the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law require that the decedent’s distributees (ie next of kin) be notified and afforded the opportunity to challenge the Will. However, instead of heading right into a trial, the opposing parties typically engage in a pre-trial process. This process often begins with the discovery of information that is allowed by SCPA 1404.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed SCPA 1404 in previous posts. Essentially, this statute allows a person who has filed or is just considering filing Objections to a Will, to take the pre-trial testimony of the attesting witnesses to a Will and the person who prepared the Will such as the attorney draftsperson. The nominated executors and the proponents of the Will may also be examined if there is an in terrorem clause. SCPA 1404 also allows the parties to obtain discovery documents that may be relevant to this examination.

One interesting aspect of this discovery process is a rule that is contained in Section 207.27 of the New York Surrogate’s Court Uniform Rules. This section limits the examination to a time period that is three years prior to date of the Will and two years after such date or the date of the death of the decedent, whichever is shorter. The Court can extend these periods of times if it is shown that special circumstances require the extension.

In a recent case decided by Nassau Surrogate Edward McCarty III on June 28, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on August 23, 2013, entitled Will of Janet Soluri, the Court denied a request for documents dated outside of the above 3 year/2 year parameter since special circumstances were not shown to exist.

The discovery process and Court proceedings involved in a Contested Probate matter can be very complex and require the advice of estate attorneys who are familiar with the Surrogate’s Court and Estate Litigation. Examining witnesses to a Will, preparing and filing Will Objections and analyzing the facts and issues in these proceedings in order to protect the rights of disinherited heirs is typically challenging.

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New York Estate Attorneys are aware of the many statutes and rules regarding Wills, Estate Settlement and Surrogate’s Court procedures. The Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) and the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) embody the statutory framework regarding estates practice.

Among the many items contained in these laws are provisions regarding the rights of a decedent’s surviving spouse. As would be expected, a spouse, along with children, play prominent roles when it comes to inheritance. For example, if a person dies intestate (i.e, without a Last Will) EPTL 4-1.1 requires that a spouse receive $50,000 plus one-half of the decedent’s estate when there are also surviving issue (i.e. children). If there are no issue surviving, the spouse receives the entire estate. However, what is the outcome where the decedent does leave a Last Will but makes no provision in the Will for the spouse or for children. In New York a person may disinherit his children entirely. A spouse though may not be completely cut out from inheriting. As discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, EPTL 5-1.1-A entitled “Right of election by surviving spouse” contains provisions that effectively give a spouse at least $50,000 or one-third of a decedent’s net estate. The statute goes on to provide a procedure to follow for an aggrieved spouse to claim this statutory minimum amount. If a spouse is completely disinherited under a Will or is not designated to receive a sum at least equal to the right of election amount, the spouse can prepare and file an Election to take this elective share rather than the lesser amount designated by a Last Will.

The statute provides very explicit procedures that must be followed to preserve and effectuate this election. EPTL 5-1.1-A(d) contains the “Procedure for exercise of right of election” and sets forth requirements which include that the election must be made within 6 months after the issuance of fiduciary letters but not later than 2 years after the death of the decedent. Also, the election must be served on the estate’s personal representative and filed with the Surrogate’s Court.

A recent case decided by Brooklyn Surrogate Diana Johnson entitled Estate of Shlomo Cyngiel illustrates the necessity to obide by the requirements of the Right of Election Statute. Cyngiel was decided on July 23, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on July 30, 2013. The decedent’s spouse died over 5 years after the decedent and, as found by the Court, failed to follow the statutory procedures to timely file for the Election. The deceased spouse’s Executor applied to the Surrogate to grant an extension of the time to file on behalf of the deceased spouse. The Surrogate found that the Executor did not present a justifiable basis to allow an extension of time to allow a late filing. The Court also stated that a right of election is a personal right of a surviving spouse and must be exercised during the spouse’s lifetime. The estate of the surviving spouse was precluded from exercising the election.

The use of a Right of Election is an important aspect in both pre-death Estate Planning and post-death estate administration. Therefore, it is always a good approach to review and discuss these issues with an experienced Estate Lawyer.

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A New York Supplemental Needs Trust (“SNT”) is a trust that allows trust funds to be available for a person who is receiving government benefits such as Medicaid or Social Security Disability (“SSD”). The governmental payments continue and are not reduced or terminated despite the existence of the trust fund. While the government sometimes may be entitled to claim a re-payment upon the death of the beneficiary, the beneficiary can utilize both the government and trust resources during life in furtherance of their quality of life.

A SNT is typically needed where a person is disabled or incapacitated and is the recipient of governmental assistance. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) Section 7-1.12 provides the statutory details as to the trust requirements. New York Estate and Guardianship Lawyers generally become aware that there are many different situations where a SNT can preserve assets to be used for incapacitated individuals. For example, there are situations where a person may be injured due to an accident or medical procedure and ultimately receive a large monetary award for the injuries they suffer. Sometimes the injuries also result in an incapacity that would allow the person to qualify for benefits such as Medicaid or SSD if they did not have any personal assets. In order to prevent the monetary settlement from disqualifying the person from receiving the benefits, the settlement proceeds can be placed into a SNT. The SNT trustee can then use the SNT funds in his discretion to provide additional care and benefits which are not provided through the government payments.

Many situations where a SNT is needed may involve Court proceedings such as Article 81 Guardianships in the Supreme Court or Estate Administration in the Surrogate’s Court. In these matters, the Court is asked to authorize and allow the creation of the SNT and the transfer of the funds to the SNT trustee. Court authorization allows the funds to pass directly to the trust and avoid having the incapacitated person receive these monies which would otherwise result in the disqualification or termination of the governmental benefits.

A recent case in the Nassau Surrogate’s Court is a typical example of the use and benefit of a SNT. Matter of Krushnauckas, decided by Surrogate Edward McCarty III on June 28, 2013, and reported in the New York Law Journal on August 8, 2013, concerned the estate of an individual, Adrienne, who died intestate leaving a daughter named, Michele. Michele was 56 years of age and was mentally retarded and was receiving governmental benefits in the form of Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Michele’s Property Management Guardian was the Public Administrator who requested that the Court approve a SNT for the approximately $400,000 estate distribution that Michele was entitled to receive. By placing the inheritance into the SNT, Michele’s Medicaid and SSI would not be affected. After reviewing the general benefits and reasons for establishing a SNT along with some issues regarding payback of benefits, the Court authorized the establishment of the trust.

The effective planning and use of a SNT in Article 81 Guardianship proceedings and Estate Settlement matters can create tremendous benefits and promote the quality of life for persons suffering from disabilities and incapacity.

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New York Estate Lawyers regularly prepare Last Wills and Trusts for their clients. One item that is typically discussed is the amount of commissions or fees that an Executor, Administrator or Trustee may be paid. The primary source for the allowance and calculation of fiduciary commissions is Article 23 of the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”).

Section 2307 of the SCPA entitled “Commissions of fiduciaries other than trustees” relates primarily to Executors and Administrators. While the section and the implementation of its rules is rather complex, the simple formulas established are that commissions are paid at the rate of 5% of the first $100,000; 4% for the next $200,000; 3% for the next $700,000; 2½% for the next $4,000,000; and 2% for all sums above $5,000,000. Other parts of the statute provide that the fiduciary is allowed to be reimbursed for the reasonable and necessary expenses that he pays. Also, if the fiduciary collects rents and manages real property, he is entitled to receive an additional 5% of the gross rents he collects. If the value of the estate is more than $300,000 and there are multiple co-fiduciaries, each fiduciary (up to 3 in number) can receive a full commission.

Clearly, the amount of commissions that a single or multiple fiduciaries can receive can have an impact on the funds that are ultimately paid to the beneficiaries. Therefore, when creating an estate plan, it is important to consider the effect the payment of commissions may have. Not only is there the financial consideration whereby the net estate available for the beneficiaries is reduced, commissions may result in unknowingly benefiting one beneficiary over another. For example, if a decedent wants to name only one of his children as an Executor, the child who acts as Executor may end up with a larger share of the estate due to the up-front payment to him of commissions. This result may be unintended if the Executor child was only named for convenience because he or she lived in New York while the other children resided elsewhere.

SCPA 2309 entitled “Commissions of Trustees under wills of persons dying, or lifetime trusts established, after August 31, 1956” provides the basic guidelines for the payment of Trustees commissions. When selecting any fiduciary such as an Executor or Trustee, there are many considerations to be taken into account. In addition to the estimated amount and possible financial impact of commissions, the creator of a Will or Trust must have the utmost confidence that the fiduciary will perform his duties properly and carryout the intentions of the creator. As can be seen from many previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, fiduciaries have many responsibilities and can face many complex and intricate problems such as Estate Tax issues and Estate claims. While fiduciary commissions may be well earned compensation, it is still important to consider and plan an estate and trust bearing in mind the commissions that may be paid.

An additional factor that may be important to consider when reviewing potential commissions is that the payment of fiduciary commissions is typically a deductible expense for Estate Taxes. Also, fiduciary commissions are usually taxable as income to the fiduciary whereas beneficiary distributions from an estate are commonly received income tax free. Therefore, a fiduciary may be better off from an income tax standpoint to receive his beneficial share in full rather than receive an upfront payment of a taxable commission which would reduce his non-taxable beneficiary payment.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has posted many articles concerning the need for thoughtful and specific estate planning. The many documents that can be used for advanced directives and post-death plans include a Living Trust, Health Care Proxy, Last Will, Living Will and Power of Attorney.

The failure of a person to provide any documented directions or intentions can result in the disposition of assets to unintended beneficiaries through intestacy and disputes regarding a person’s care and property management in the case of incapacity. Even when estate planning documents are put into place, Will provisions that are ambiguous or confusing can result in estate litigation in the form of a Will construction proceeding.

In addition, there are many instances where, despite the preparation and execution of planning documents, disgruntled heirs, relatives and other individuals may claim that the decedent had promised or agreed to provide for them notwithstanding the absence of such provisions in a Will or a Trust. An interesting example of such a situation was presented to the Nassau Surrogate’s Court in Will of Irving Lublin , decided on June 26, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on July 22, 2013. In Lublin Nassau Surrogate Edward McCarty III was presented with a Last Will that left the decedent’s entire estate to the decedent’s wife and son. The decedent’s daughter commenced a lawsuit claiming that her grandfather had an oral agreement with the decedent by which the grandfather agreed to transfer the family business to the decedent and the decedent’s wife. In return the decedent allegedly agreed that he would care for the aggrieved daughter and ensure that she received her share of the business. The daughter now claimed that the business was wrongfully transferred to the decedent’s son.

After reviewing the evidence the Court determined that the alleged oral agreement was too vague to be enforceable. The Court also refused to impose a constructive trust due to the lack of specificity regarding the agreement.

Lublin presents an example of a common situation where individuals have an expectation based upon lifetime promises or understandings with a decedent, and end up being disappointed when those expectations are not adequately expressed in valid and enforceable documents. From an estate planning point of view, if the creator of a Trust or Will desires to benefit a person with a bequest or other property disposition, the Trust or Will should contain very specific provisions regarding the proposed transfer. Similarly, it is always best for a person not to state or infer promises that are not intended to be memorialized in an enforceable document. Such pronouncements can only create expectations for individuals who end up being hurt or dissatisfied upon learning that there have been no written provisions made for their benefit. These circumstances invariably lead to litigation in an estate and unnecessary complications for estate administration.

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The administration of a decedent’s estate is primarily under the authority of the New York Surrogate’s Court. These courts also supervise testamentary trusts and, in many cases, inter vivos trusts, as well. A testamentary trust is a trust that is created by a decedent’s Last Will.

As can be imagined, there are many diverse issues that a decedent’s estate may be involved with. For example, the decedent may have been the owner of a business. There can be issues and disputes concerning the business operations that a rise after death.

Additionally, matters concerning the determination and collection of assets and controversies regarding a decedent’s debts and obligations are all part of the multitude of issues that the Surrogate’s Court can be called upon to determine.

The jurisdiction of the Court to review issues that affect an estate is very broad and sometimes it is surprising that the Surrogate’s Court has authority to rule on a particular controversy. One such area that falls into this category is summary eviction proceedings. In most localities in New York, there are specifically designated Courts in which landlord-tenant matters and evictions are heard. In New York City, each of the counties, such as Queens and Brooklyn, have landlord-tenant parts in the New York City Civil Court.

It is very common that when a person dies owning real estate such property is occupied by third parties. The occupant may be an unrelated tenant or even a family member who was living at the property with the decedent or otherwise with the decedent’s consent. There are many cases where a decedent may have allowed a relative to live in a house for decades. However, after a person dies, if the real estate is titled in the decedent’s name alone, the property may become part of the decedent’s estate and its sale may be necessary to pay estate bills, a mortgage or to distribute the property value amongst numerous estate beneficiaries.

Problems arise when the occupant refuses to vacate the property. The fiduciary, who has the responsibility to manage the property, is then faced with the task of having to evict the occupant so that estate or trust affairs can be taken care of. In these cases the first thought might be to file a petition in the local landlord-tenant Court. However, the Surrogate’s Courts have acknowledged that the eviction proceeding can be commenced in such Court since the matter affects the administration of the estate or trust affairs.

A recent case entitled Matter of Katherine Boyer decided by Surrogate James Pagones (Surrogate’s Court, Dutchess County) on June 7, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on June 14, 2013, addressed this very issue. In Boyer, a property owned by the decedent was transferred under the decedent’s Last Will to the trustees of a testamentary trust. The trustees brought a proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court seeking the eviction of the occupant who was living in the property. The Court found that the property was owned by the trust and also issued a warrant of eviction against the occupant.

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A New York Executor, Administrator or Trustee has many powers and obligations. As a fiduciary, such appointments require that a full record and account of activities be maintained so that an accounting can be provided to the estate or trust beneficiaries.

It is not uncommon for a beneficiary to complain that he did not receive either an accounting from a fiduciary or the full share of assets that he feels he was entitled to. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts that the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) provides a remedy when a beneficiary asserts that an accounting has not been provided. SCPA 2205 sets forth that the Court may issue an order that requires a fiduciary to file an account. Typically, the aggrieved beneficiary will prepare and file a Petition with the Court and a Citation is issued directing the fiduciary to appear in Court and state why he should not be required to file the account. Since the preparation of an accounting is fundamental to the completion of the fiduciary’s job, the Surrogate will almost always require the filing. If the fiduciary fails to appear on the Court date or does not comply with the Order to file, the Court may suspend or remove the fiduciary.

A New York Estate Attorney will usually represent an Executor, Administrator or Trustee in an accounting proceeding. Very often, the services of a fiduciary accountant are used to prepare the detailed schedules that are part of the papers to be given to the beneficiary and the Court. The schedules must be in accordance with the requirements of the estate rules. SCPA contains an Official Form 12 which is an Account of Executors and Administrators. Official Form 13 is an Account for Trustees.

While the Surrogate usually directs a court filing of a formal accounting, the Court appears to have some leeway in its determination. A recent decision by New York Surrogate Nora Anderson entitled Estate of Jean Kennedy decided on June 12, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on June 21, 2013 is instructive. In Kennedy, Surrogate Anderson declined to require an Executor/Trustee to file a formal judicial accounting. The Judge ruled that such filing would not be in the best interest of the estate at the present time since the fiduciary had provided an informal accounting, was willing to provide the beneficiary with all requested financial information and it appeared that the beneficiary’s interests had already been satisfied with other assets.

I have found that a claim of breach of fiduciary duties and the failure to account to a beneficiary are very common aspect of Estate Litigation in the Surrogate’s Courts. While the New York Estate laws are very helpful and protective of the interests of beneficiaries, the Kennedy case shows that judicial decisions often reflect the needs of the particular facts and circumstances of the case.

Therefore, consultation with a New York Trusts and Estate Lawyer regarding fiduciary breaches and accounting requirements is important in order to present a matter to the Court in an appropriate fashion. As they say, one size does not fit all.

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The New York Estate Settlement process begins upon the death of an individual. Clearly, a person’s demise signals what seems to be an end to that person’s affairs and the settlement or winding up of matters and the distribution of estate assets. However, as shown in many posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, a person’s death may initiate and involve events and issues that can continue for years or even decades.

Many aspects of the administration of a New York Estate can seem never-ending. For example, Estate Litigation involving Will Contests can delay the finalization of an estate for many years and involve proceedings in the Surrogate’s Courts. Many other disputes concern the ownership of a decedent’s assets. These controversies can take many different forms. A recent case decided by Kings County Surrogate Margarita Lopez-Torres on May 23, 2013 entitled Matter of Hasan related to the ownership of certain real property. In Hasan, the decedent had been a co-owner of property as a tenant-in-common. Thus, the decedent’s interest in the real estate passed to his heirs at law subject to necessary estate administration rather than to a co-owner as would have occurred if the property was held jointly with rights of survivorship. As discussed in the decision, after the decedent’s death, various deeds were executed transferring the decedent’s interest in the property without proper authority. After much litigation before the Surrogate, the Court declared these deeds null and void.

Other estate asset rights may result in the perpetuation of estate matters. These rights may involve interests in a business, copyrights, trademarks and rights of publicity. As reported by Eriq Gardner in the Hollywood Reporter, Esq., on June 4, 2013, the heirs of the late film star Lon Chaney, Jr. commenced a lawsuit against Universal Studios. The lawsuit seeks damages for the improper exploitation of Mr. Chaney’s likeness. The film star died in 1973 and was famous for his role in many horror movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s such as the Wolf Man.

In another recent lawsuit, the Andy Warhol Foundation had claimed that artwork from a Warhol album cover from 1967 was protected by copyright and trademark laws and was being improperly exploited. As reported by Eriq Gardner in the Hollywood Reporter, Esq., on May 29, 2013, the parties had recently settled this Federal lawsuit.

As can be seen from the cases discussed and many other posts in this Blog, the settlement of a person’s affairs can be many times more complicated after they die than when they were alive. New York Estate Planning may be very helpful in avoiding some of the most complicated post-death issues. It is imperative that a full exploration and understanding of a person’s assets takes place when preparing an estate plan. Appropriate steps can then be implemented to provide for proper administration of property rights after death and to cure any defects or clarify any documents such as deeds, or copyright and trademark filings, so that disputes can be avoided.

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