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Articles Posted in Accountings

The settlement of an estate in New York involves the preparation of an account by the fiduciary. Executors and Administrators need to assemble an account that provides information regarding the transactions that occurred during the administration of the estate.

New York estate lawyers are familiar with the provisions of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) that relate to accountings. These provisions are contained in Article 22 of the statute. The provisions of the law and the Surrogate’s Court Judges are generally liberal with regard to the right of an estate beneficiary to receive documents and information relating to a fiduciary’s handling of estate affairs.   SCPA Section 2211 provides, in part, that the fiduciary can be examined under oath either before or after objections are filed. This section also allows document discovery to occur during such examination period. As a result, an estate beneficiary can obtain copies of bank statements, brokerage statements, expense receipts and bills, estate tax returns and other papers that can provide information as to whether there are any issues concerning the accuracy or validity of the account. In the event the beneficiary feels that the account is improper he can file Objections with the Court. Continue reading

The settlement of a New York estate can be divided into three main parts.  The estate can begin with proceedings to probate a Will and appoint an Executor.  If there is no Will and the decedent died intestate, then a petition can be filed to appoint an Administrator.  Once the estate fiduciary is appointed the next stage involves the task of identifying and collecting assets, determining and resolving debts and claims and paying estate expenses such as taxes which include both income and estate taxes. Of course, both of the above stages can be complicated by various forms of issues and estate litigation involving a Will contest, a kinship hearing or other disputes.  These controversies may delay the appointment of a fiduciary and the resolution of estate affairs.

Once the estate activities have been concluded, the time has come for the fiduciary to prepare his accounting and make a distribution to the beneficiaries. In most instances the beneficiaries will receive a copy of the account along with a form entitled “Receipt, Release and Waiver and Refunding Agreement” or some variation thereof. Essentially, the form will provide that the beneficiary approves of the account and releases the fiduciary from further liability regarding the estate. If all of the interested parties sign a release form, the estate executor or administrator will not have to file a formal accounting proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court to obtain the approval of his account. This informal method of accounting results in less time and cost for the finalization of the decedent’s affairs. If any of the beneficiaries have any questions regarding the account they can ask the fiduciary directly to respond to their inquiry. Also, if a beneficiary wants to review any of the estate papers such as bank account statements or an estate tax return, such paper can be requested from the executor or administrator. Continue reading

A fiduciary can be found in any number of different roles.  The Surrogate’s Court can appoint a New York Executor or Administrator to handle the affairs of a decedent’s estate.  The New York Supreme Court can appoint an Article 81 Guardian to be responsible for the property management and personal needs of an incapacitated person.  In all of these situations the appointed party is a fiduciary who has obligations and responsibilities.  The actions and performance of all fiduciaries are subject to review by the Court which typically occurs when the fiduciary prepares an accounting reflecting the transactions that have occurred during the tenure of the accounting party.  All persons interested in the matter have a right to review the accounting and to file objections concerning issues they believe constitute a breach of a fiduciary duty. There have been a number of recent court cases which provide interesting examples of the process of reviewing the propriety of fiduciary conduct.

Matter of Flynn was a case involving an accounting by an Article 81 Guardian.  Flynn was decided by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Michael L. Pesce on March 20, 2014.  A son of the incapacitated person filed Objections to the Guardian’s account essentially asserting that the use by the Guardian of in trust for accounts (“Totten Trusts”), which named the son as beneficiary, was improper.  After reviewing the evidence, the Court found that the Guardian’s use of these accounts, even without prior Court approval, was appropriate since the funds were needed and used for the interests of the incapacitated person.  The Court also found that the Guardian’s selection of a nursing home to which the funds were paid was also appropriate and did not waste the funds.  The Court dismissed the Objections as being without merit. Continue reading

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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Estate litigation in New York can involve many types of issues. One area of dispute often concerns the rights various individuals may have in a decedent’s Estate or Trust. For example, the New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts issues concerning the determination of a decedent’s next of kin or distributees. Kinship Hearings may be required by a Court to decide these issues which often relate to relatives such as cousins or more distant relatives whose relationship may be difficult to establish.

Persons interested in an estate may sometimes challenge the status of a surviving spouse. Questions may arise as to whether a marriage or divorce occurred, particularly where such proceedings occur in a foreign country and record keeping may be poor and valid proof of marriage and divorce proceedings may be difficult to obtain.

Litigation in estates may also arise where a person is either adopted by a decedent or where the decedent gave a child up for adoption and surrendered his parental rights. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 2-1.3(a) provides that adopted children have the same inheritance rights as natural children. The statute, however, allows a person to avoid this result by expressing “a contrary intention”. Thus, a person who prepares a Last Will or Trust can specifically exclude adopted children, or any other child for that matter, since there is no requirement in New York preventing a person from completely disinheriting a child, natural or otherwise.

In a sort of reverse situation where a parent gives up a child for adoption, New York Domestic Relations Law 117(b) provides, generally, that after an adoption is complete the adoptive child loses his rights of inheritance from his birth parents. Thus, except in certain specific instances, the adoptive child no longer will have any statutory inheritance rights with regard to the family of the biological parents. While these rules may appear on their face to be able to be applied without much confusion, the dynamics of family interaction and monetary considerations often create complicated issues for the Surrogate’s Courts to decide.

An interesting example of the interaction of the New York adoptive rights statutes was recently presented in the Estate of John Svenningsen, which was decided by the New York Appellate Division, Second Department on February 6, 2013. and reported in the New York Law Journal on February 8, 2013. In Svenningsen, the decedent (“John”) and his wife “Christine” adopted a child from China about one year before John died. The couple then commenced proceedings to formalize the adoption in Family Court, Westchester County and these proceedings were finalized after John died. John and Christine had other natural children. The documents that were involved in the Court dispute concerned various Trusts and John’s Last Will. The Will was probated after John died and the adopted daughter (“Emily”) was identified in the Probate Petition by Christine as one of John’s children.

More than 7 years after the adoption and six years after the Will was admitted to probate, Christine surrendered her parental rights to Emily who was then adopted by another couple. When Emily’s new parents discovered by searching court records that John’s estate was valued at more than $250 million dollars, they sought an accounting from John’s estate Executors and Trustees. The fiduciaries, however, refused to provide an accounting and claimed that Emily had lost her rights to inherit under John’s Trusts and Estate pursuant to DRL 117 due to her adoption out of John’s family. Both the Surrogate and the Appellate Court found though that Emily’s right to benefit from John’s Estate and Trusts were not lost by her adoption and that the fiduciaries were required to provide her with an accounting of her share of the Estate and Trust funds.

One interesting aspect of this case is that Emily’s new adoptive parents were able to discover the large amount of funds available in John’s estate by researching the Court records. There are many cases in the Surrogate’s Court concerning Probate, Administration and Accounting proceedings where I have located valuable information to benefit a client by searching the Court records.

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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, 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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A New York Executor and Administrator has an obligation to collect estate assets, pay bills and expenses and then distribute the net estate to the estate beneficiaries. Estate settlement in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens or other New York Counties is fundamentally the same.

As part of the settlement process, the estate fiduciary will prepare an accounting of his or her activities as an Executor or Administrator or Trustee. The form of the accounting is provided in official forms for the Surrogate’s Court. The accounting reports specifically all of the assets and income collected, all of the expenses and claims that were paid and the amount of funds that ultimately remain on hand to be distributed to the beneficiaries. Such distribution is made in accordance with the terms of the probated Will or as provided by the laws of intestacy.

Prior to distribution the accounting is given to the parties entitled to distribution so they can review and approve it. A fiduciary generally will not distribute shares of an estate without an approval of the account by all necessary parties and their signed Release and acknowledgement that they approve of the job done by the fiduciary.

In many cases, the beneficiaries either object to or have questions regarding the transactions of the fiduciary. When this occurs, there are provisions in the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) and other statutes that provide a means by which the beneficiaries can investigate any questions they have about the administration of an estate or a trust. Specifically SCPA 2211 entitled, “voluntary account; proceedings thereupon” allows a party to take oral testimony of a fiduciary to examine all of the fiduciary papers relating to the accounting. Such papers may include bank statements, deeds, tax returns, financial records, bills and receipts. Following the completion of the SCPA 2211 examination a decision can then be made as to whether to file formal objections to the accounting.

Depending upon the size of an estate, an accounting may be very lengthy and report hundreds of different financial transactions. The review and advice of experienced accountants and New York Estate Lawyers should be obtained to determine whether there exists a valid basis to object to the actions of an executor or administrator. In some cases discovery of information from third party witnesses may also be needed such as banks and other individuals who have knowledge regarding the transactions.

Generally, the New York Surrogate’s Courts encourage interested parties to resolve their disputes, including accounting contests, without extensive Court proceedings or a trial. An estate accounting is always helpful to the recipients of estate bequests or shares. It provides a clear and concise review of all of the estate receipts and expenditures so that a party can understand exactly why he or she is receiving a certain sum of money.

Since accountings are an essential part of the estate process, I always advise clients who are Executors, Administrators and Trustees to maintain clear and complete records of all of their transactions and keep copies of all papers that may be needed to provide support and back-up for the transactions.

It should also be noted that Article 81 Guardians are also required to provide annual accountings. Mental Hygiene Law Section 81.31. Thus, all fiduciaries should maintain complete records so that they can respond to any questions regarding any item that appears in their accounting.

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The estate settlement process in New York involves a number of stages. The first stage is typically the appointment of the fiduciary. Where the decedent has left a Last Will, the Will must be probated. Throughout New York such as in Westchester or the Bronx, probate in the Surrogate’s Court can involve kinship issues, Will contests or proving the validity of a lost Will.

When a person dies without a Will or intestate, the process of appointing a fiduciary is known as an Administration proceeding. Proper New York estate planning should be done to avoid intestacy. Where there is no Will, the decedent’s estate is distributed to his or her next of kin or “distributees”. Many of the problems that can be faced in Administration proceedings, such as kinship hearings, have been discussed in previous posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog.

After the initial stage of appointing a fiduciary, the next stage in estate settlement is the actual collection of estate assets and the payment of estate expenses such as taxes and debts. This stage involves many issues regarding the decedent’s affairs including estate tax determination and possible Court proceedings regarding disputes with estate creditors or claimants. The numerous tasks involved in marshaling the decedent’s assets and administering the estate affairs can take many months. Once this phase of the estate is completed, the time has come to distribute the estate assets to the beneficiaries.

This final stage typically involves the preparation of a full Accounting which specifies all of the transactions entered into by the Executor or Administrator during the course of the estate. An estate Accounting contains a number of parts called Schedules, each of which contains different information. One Schedule shows the assets that a fiduciary collected while another Schedule shows the various expenses that were paid. Another Schedule shows the amount of estate assets that are currently available for distribution.

After review of the Accounting, the estate beneficiaries often agree to approve the Accounting informally or without a separate Accounting Proceeding in Surrogate’s Court. However, if estate beneficiaries do not agree, the fiduciary would then file the Accounting with the Surrogate’s Court in Queens or Manhattan or whatever County the estate is being administered in. The estate beneficiaries can then file Objections to the Accounting and the Court will make the final determination as to the validity of the objections.

Objections to the Accounting can include such items as breaches of fiduciary duty for commingling assets or misappropriation of funds. Other objections can relate to improper payment of expenses or losses sustained due to the decline in value of an estate asset. Following the approval of the Accounting by the beneficiary or the determination of the Court as to any formal objections, the estate assets can be distributed and the estate settled. A recent case decided by Manhattan Surrogate Nora Anderson on March 6, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 19, 2012 entitled Accounting of Chase Manhattan Bank, provides an example of the many types of issues that can be raised in a Surrogate’s Court Accounting. Although this case concerned an accounting by Trustees of a revocable inter vivos trust, the issues included claims of underpayment of distributions and wrongful payments.

Formal Court accountings are typically long and complex proceedings. Most estates are settled out of Court. However, it is important that the fiduciary keep and retain good records and report the estate transactions to the beneficiaries in a clear and concise manner. Such actions by the fiduciary should result in a smooth ending to estate administration and distribution of assets to estate beneficiaries.

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Brooklyn and Nassau estate attorneys, as well as those assisting their clients throughout all parts of New York State, are often confronted with a myriad of issues relating to Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Article 81 Guardianship and estate settlement.

In a typical situation, an individual may have prepared a Last Will while at the same time preparing a New York Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed the importance of preparing advance directives such as a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy by which others can be appointed to handle a person’s property and health care issues in case of illness or incapacity.

All parties involved in these matters should be particularly aware that agents appointed in a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy have similar fiduciary duties to act appropriately as do Court appointed fiduciaries such as Article 81 Guardians and Executors and Administrators. In many instances, questionable conduct by these lifetime agents may end up being reviewed by a Court in a Guardianship Proceeding or in proceedings in the New York Surrogate’s Court after the appointing person dies. Issues regarding property transfers, expenditure of funds, and the change of names or beneficiaries on bank accounts, life insurance and retirement funds can result in disputes that overlap lifetime and post death periods.

A recent lawsuit entitled Kaufman v. Kaufman, in New York State Supreme Court, New York County, provides an excellent example of the problems and issues that can arise in these situations. Kaufman involved two brothers, Allen and Kenneth, both of whom were appointed as agents in a Power of Attorney by their father, Hyman. Allen and Kenneth were also Co-Trustees under family trusts. Hyman, who had suffered a brain injury, had been in a nursing home for a number of years.

Allen petitioned the Court for an accounting and requested among other things, that Kenneth be removed as attorney-in-fact under the power of attorney and as a trustee for violating his fiduciary duties. As recounted by the Court, Allen claimed that Kenneth was “refusing to share financial information, failing to provide a complete record of financial transactions, and using Hyman’s assets for personal and business purposes.”

Following a review of the parties assertions, Justice Donna Mills in a decision dated August 4, 2011, directed Kenneth to provide an accounting of his activities pursuant to New York General Obligations Law Section 5-1505. This Statute, entitled “Standard of Care: fiduciary duties; compelling disclosure of record”, requires in paragraph 2(3) an agent under a power of attorney “to keep a record of all receipts, disbursements, and transactions entered into by the agent on behalf of the principal and to make such record and power of attorney available to the principal or to third parties at the request of the principal”
It is apparent that issues involving fiduciary duties and the safeguarding or misuse of assets can overlap from the lifetime stage to a post death estate settlement controversy. Suppose Hyman had died prior to the resolution of the Supreme Court case. In such event, questions regarding the propriety of Kenneth’s acts might need to be resolved in the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court as part of the administration of Hyman’s estate.

I have counseled clients, both fiduciaries and beneficiaries, in many situations similar to those raised in Kaufman. The appointment of lifetime agents, as well as executors and trustees, requires thorough consideration and the problems faced by the fiduciaries and those whose interests they are protecting can arise and require resolution in many different forums.

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New York Executors and Administrators are appointed by the Surrogate’s Court to administer a decedent’s estate. Typically, there are many aspects to estate settlement including the identification and collection of a decedent’s assets, the payment of debts and estate expenses and the payment of income and estate taxes. The final phase of estate administration requires the distribution of the decedent’s net estate to beneficiaries either according to the terms of the decedent’s Last Will or pursuant to the laws of intestacy.

In this final phase the estate fiduciary is required to provide an accounting of his or her activities so that the beneficiaries can see that the distributions to be made to them are accurate and are in accordance with the terms of the decedent’s Last Will and statutory rules. In estate accounting proceedings a beneficiary can examine and object to the conduct of the Executor or Administrator that occurred during the course of estate settlement. Beneficiaries can also dispute proposed distributions based upon differing interpretations or construction of the Last Will or statutory language.

A typical contested Accounting proceeding occurred in Matter of Marianne C. Gourary reported in the New York Law Journal on November 16, 2010. Matter of Gourary involved a 17 million dollar estate where the decedent’s wife, Marianne, was the executor and objections to her accounting were filed by their son, John. In deciding motions for summary judgment, Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen of the New York County Surrogate’s Court faced a number of issues.

One issue involved a dispute regarding the proper distribution of the decedent’s collection of rare books. The parties disputed which provision of the Last Will was intended to dispose of this book collection. The Court found that this dispute should be resolved after a trial.

Another issue involved John’s objection to Marianne’s use of estate funds for secretarial services. The Court found that Marianne’s payment for these services from estate funds was improper and required that she reimburse the estate from her executor’s commissions.

As can be seen from Matter of Gourary, Executor and Administrator accounting proceedings can be contentious and complex and can involve many diverse issues. The actual accountings are often lengthy and must be prepared in specific financial schedules as required by the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act and Court guidelines.

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