Articles Posted in Accountings

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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A New York Fiduciary is generally required to provide a full accounting of his or her financial transactions. Fiduciaries include estate Executors and Administrators, Trustees and Guardians of incapacitated persons. The information set forth in the accounting can be simple or complex depending upon the nature of the estate or trust that is the subject of the accounting.

The Surrogate’s Court and the other Courts that have jurisdiction over the matters that are the subject of the accounting are guided by standard rules regarding the accounting process. For example, Article 22 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act contains numerous sections that delineate the accounting process. Surrogate’s Court Official Form No. 12 provides the standard format for an “Account of Executors and Administrators”. Despite the variety of fiduciaries that are subject to these rules, in virtually all instances the accountings require that the fiduciary describe in detail: (i) the assets or items that were received: (ii) the payments or distributions that were made; and (iii) the balance of assets that remain on hand. The information contained in the numerous accounting Schedules can be extensive. Accounting for many types of equity holdings such as stocks and bonds particularly where sales, stock splits, mergers or other transactions occur can result in very lengthly and quite complex transaction descriptions.

Accountings will disclose additional financial information including a computation of fiduciary commissions, and the payment of estate and income taxes. The important aspect of the accounting process is that the beneficiaries of the estate or trust are entitled to receive and review the accounting. Any objectionable items can be brought to the attention of the Court overseeing the accounting process and rectified if appropriate. The accounting process is also helpful to the fiduciary who is given the opportunity to disclose all of his or her activities and make distributions of assets and obtain an approval of his or her actions.

Accountings can be informal, meaning that the parties can all agree and accept the accounting without formal Court proceedings. On the other hand, formal accounting proceedings require that the accounting be filed with the Court and approved or finalized through formal Court proceedings including discovery and hearings or a trial.

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