In New York the persons who are entitled to share a decedent’s property are called distributees. These persons are more commonly known as heirs or next of kin.
A determination of distributees or kinship is essential in Surrogate’s Court proceedings and the Court rules and procedures require that due diligence be demonstrated in asserting the family tree. In probate proceedings, distributees must be identified so that they can receive notice of the probate proceedings and afforded the opportunity to review and contest the decedent’s Last Will. This notice is called a Citation which is similar to a summons.
Although the terms of a Last Will may be clear and unambiguous, the probate or validation of the Will cannot be accomplished without first identifying the distributees who are to be given notice of the proceedings. Many decedents are survived by only distant relatives such as great nieces, nephews, cousins or more distant next of kin who have had little or no contact with the decedent and whose whereabouts are unknown. A great deal of time and expense may be incurred in searching for these individuals who may be scattered around the globe. The services of a professional genealogist may be needed to reconstruct the family tree.
Similar kinship problems arise in Administration proceedings where the decedent died without leaving a Last Will. Again, the determination of the decedent’s next of kin is essential in order to identify the persons who are to receive notice of the Administration proceeding and, ultimately, a share of the decedent’s estate. Believe it or not, many persons die leaving no Last Will and little trace or information regarding their relatives who may have been estranged or who live in another state or country. In these cases, their assets may escheat to New York State.
The New York Surrogate’s Courts are very strict regarding kinship matters. The Court needs to be certain that proper proof such as birth and death records and affidavits documenting diligent searches are available so that estate assets are not distributed to non-family members or without proper notice.
I have helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to kinship in New York Probate and Administration proceedings. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding kinship, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.