New York Estate Distribution Often Requires a Determination Concerning Spousal Rights

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has provided a number of posts concerning the rights of a person’s next of kin to inherit or have an interest in an estate. New York Estate Attorneys are aware that local statutes provide protections and rights to a decedent’s surviving spouse. For example, pursuant to Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) Section 4-1.1 a surviving spouse can claim the amount of $50,000 plus one-half of an estate if there are also surviving issue. Additionally, under EPTL 5-1.1-A a spouse who is disinherited under a Will can claim a spousal share of generally one-third of the estate.

While in most instances there is no dispute as to whether a certain individual is actually the spouse of a decedent, there are many cases where the legal status of a spouse is called into question. When spousal rights are disputed, there is typically estate litigation to determine what rights, if any, a person claiming to be a spouse may be entitled to. A couple of recent cases demonstrate issues that a Court may be called upon to resolve.

In Estate of Tran decided on May 22, 2014 by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson the Court was asked to consider a motion to dismiss a petition for letters of administration that was filed by the decedent’s alleged spouse. Under Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act 1001 a spouse has priority for appointment as a decedent’s intestate administrator. A grandson of the decedent asserted that the surviving spouse was barred from receiving a spousal share because the surviving spouse had declared that she was “single” in income tax filings she made before her husband died. In ruling on the motion the Surrogate found that the tax filings did not, in and of themselves, preclude the claim of the surviving spouse.

Another interesting case involving marital status arose in the context of a divorce where the defendant, the alleged husband, sought to dismiss a divorce action commenced by his alleged wife. The defendant asserted that there was no valid marriage since the so-called marriage was only symbolic and did not have any legal effect. The couple was allegedly married in Mexico without any marriage license in a ceremony held at a Mexican Beach resort conducted by a New York dentist who became a minister of a church via the internet for the purpose of performing weddings for friends and relatives. After extensively analyzing the facts and the law, New York Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, in a decision dated May 29, 2014, found that the parties did not expect that their marriage was to be valid in Mexico and it was not valid. The Court further found that the marriage could not be viewed as valid in New York and the divorce action was, therefore, dismissed.

As can be seen from these cases the settlement of a decedent’s estate involves many different issues. One of the primary concerns is identifying distributees or next of kin. This can range from finding a valid marriage to engaging in kinship hearings where the status of distant relatives such as cousins may need to be determined. I have represented many family members in connection with status and kinship issues in Surrogate’s Court proceedings. These matters can be quite complex and require extensive research for marriage certificates and other genealogical records such as birth and death records.

New York City estate lawyer, Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years throughout Brooklyn and New York Counties resolve issues relating to estate planning, administration and settlement in New York Probate and Administration proceedings. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.

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