New York Property Laws Determine the Ownership of A Decedent’s Real Estate

Estate attorneys in New York are familiar with the many statutes and rules regarding the ownership of property.  One of the fundamental aspects involved in estate planning is knowing and understanding the manner in which a testator owns his assets.  As examined in many previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, a Last Will typically only controls the disposition of assets that a decedent owns in his name alone.  Property interests that are held in joint tenancy or with a designated beneficiary such as a life insurance policy pass directly to the surviving joint owner or beneficiary upon a person’s death and do not become part of the estate subject to disposition by the terms of the Last Will.

In particular, in the case of real estate that is owned by a husband and wife, New York law creates a special aspect of ownership called a tenancy by the entirety.  This type of ownership essentially provides that when one of the spouses dies, the surviving spouse automatically becomes the sole and absolute owner of the property provided the parties remain married at the time of death. In view of these property rights, lifetime dispositions of one spouse’s interest in the property cannot interfere with or prevent the survivor’s right to become the sole owner upon the other parties death.Therefore, when planning an estate or attempting to obtain a different post-death disposition of property held as tenants of the entirety, both spouses need to be involved with and agree to the plan and any modification to the asset title. The failure to obtain the consent of both parties will result in a disposition or plan that is defeated by the automatic transfer of full ownership to the surviving spouse-owner.

A recent example of this situation occurred in a case entitled Manicchio v. Classic Summit, LLC decided by Westchester Supreme Court Justice Charles Wood on December 5, 2014.  In Manicchio, a husband and wife had owned real estate as tenants by the entirety. Prior to his death, the husband had started a divorce action against the wife which was not completed at the time he died. Also, prior to his death, the husband executed a deed to the property which transferred it to a Limited Liability Corporation controlled by the husband’s nephew. After the husband died, the wife asked the Court to issue a ruling declaring that she was the sole owner of the property and that the LLC had no title interest to the property. The Court agreed with the wife. Judge Wood noted that notwithstanding the decedent’s wishes and the claims that the wife mistreated the husband, the laws relating to the ownership of real estate held as tenants by the entirety must prevail. Since the interest of the husband terminated at his death, the deed he signed transferring the property to the LLC had no effect and the wife became the sole owner of the property.

I have represented many persons in planning their estates and enforcing their rights to real estate that was owned by a decedent. In these cases it is important to have experienced guidance concerning the laws of inheritance, as well as the statutes regarding property ownership rights.

New York Probate Attorney Jules M. Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to estate planning, estate accountings and estate settlement in Brooklyn and Nassau and throughout New York. 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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