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Articles Posted in Estate Settlement

There are many different obligations and aspects to the role of an estate executor or administrator.  Their primary duty is to collect assets and satisfy estate obligations.  In most instances, the assets owned by a decedent are easily identified and collected, such as bank accounts, real estate, financial accounts and retirement funds.  Likewise, the identification and satisfaction of obligations is typically uncomplicated with regard to items such as credit card bills, car loans, mortgages and other consumer debt obligations.

A recent Manhattan case decided by Manhattan Surrogate Rita Mella on August 18, 2022 entitled “Estate of Buhannic” involved a number of important aspects regarding estate settlement.

In Buhannic, the Court had issued letters to the fiduciaries which contained restrictions prohibiting the fiduciaries from disposing or selling estate assets without the further order of the Court.  This is a common type of restriction which often appears in letters of administration in intestate cases.  Such language requires that the administrator seek Court approval for a transaction.  Thus, interested parties in the estate would receive notice of the request for approval made to the Court and may review the appropriateness of the matter.  Any Objections can then be dealt with.  In the Buhannic case, the fiduciaries sought to sell shares of stock in order to pay estate obligations.  The parties ended up agreeing on the sale and the Surrogate required that the fiduciaries obtain a surety bond to secure their use of the funds.

Estate-Settlement-300x200During the course of the administration of a New York Estate, an executor or administrator may be confronted with various issues.  For example, there may be numerous debts that need to be satisfied, such as credit card bills, medical bills, car loans, mortgages and utility bills.  Each of these items needs to be examined and the estate fiduciary must determine whether and to what extent payment should be made.  Sometimes these bills can be reduced through negotiation.

During life, a decedent may have been a defendant in a pending lawsuit.  In these situations, the administrator or executor needs to be substituted into the Court action so that the estate’s interest can be protected.  Another important area of concern is whether the decedent’s estate is subject to a claim or lien from Medicaid.  If the local Medicaid provider paid for services on behalf of the decedent, there may be claims for reimbursement from the estate, such as for nursing home care.

Dealing with a creditor claim can be a complex and lengthy process and can delay the settlement of an estate since a final distribution may not be made to beneficiaries until the net value of the estate is determined.  These issues may take months or years to resolve.  One type of claim that reoccurs in estates concerns an assertion by a person that the decedent promised to pay the claimant for services that were rendered for the care of the decedent before his death.  In these cases there is usually no written contract or agreement regarding the services or the amount of the compensation to be paid.  As a result, a fiduciary must defend against a claim which is typically supported only by the oral declarations of the claimant.

House-Keys-300x200A New York estate may have many different types of assets.  These may include bank accounts, brokerage accounts, real estate, and retirement funds.  Each of these items can present various issues for an executor or administrator.  The estate fiduciary has an obligation to collect and protect estate assets.  The failure to do so can be a breach of fiduciary duty.  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published many articles discussing estate settlement and the responsibilities of administrators and executors.

One asset which may have unique complexities is a cooperative apartment.  A cooperative apartment, particularly in the New York City area, is a very common type of residence owned by a decedent.  A cooperative apartment is not real estate.  The ownership interest is personal property in the form of stock in the cooperative corporation.  This interest allows the owner to become a lessee under a proprietary lease where the cooperative corporation is the lessor or, in other words, the landlord.  As a result, the estate fiduciary, just like the decedent, must comply with the rules and regulations of the co-op with regard to all aspects of the apartment.

One of the main issues that a fiduciary may face is in connection with the sale of an apartment.  Most co-ops require approval of any transfer or sale by the cooperative Board of Directors.  The prospective purchaser must apply to the Board for approval.  In New York, the Courts allow a tremendous amount of discretion to a co-op in approving or rejecting a sale.  The Board is not even required to provide any specific reasons if it decides to reject an application from a prospective purchaser.  In the absence of some type of discrimination, an estate fiduciary is at the mercy of a co-op board in trying to sell an apartment.  This can be very frustrating, particularly when the estate is being charged monthly for maintenance fees and mortgage payments.  The sale of residential real estate or a condominium apartment does not require approval from a third party.

shutterstock_635914376-300x144One of the aspects involved with administering an estate in New York is the identification and collection of estate assets.  A decedent may have owned bank accounts, security investments, real estate or business interests.  In many cases, it is rather easy for an executor or administrator to obtain information regarding assets.  A decedent may have various records at home or at a business office.  Also, bank statements or other information may be received in a decedent’s mail.  Another source of information are items contained in a decedent’s income tax returns such as the names of banks or financial institutions which paid interest income or dividends.  If the decedent had an accountant, this person may be in possession of asset information.

One problem that is faced in many estates is that a decedent may have transferred assets prior to death.  When this occurs, it may be difficult to determine the identity of these assets.  Also, once the assets can be identified, issues arise as to whether such transfers were valid or should be revoked due to lack of capacity or undue influence.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published many articles concerning the discovery of assets belonging to a decedent.  An administrator in an intestate estate or an executor in a probate situation can utilize the process provided by Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act 2103, entitled “Proceeding by fiduciary to discover property withheld or obtain information”.  This statute allows the estate fiduciary to commence a proceeding to discover possible estate assets held by third parties and to have the Surrogate’s Court determine whether the assets should be found to be part of a decedent’s estate.

Fiduciary-300x185The essence of administering any estate begins with the appointment of an estate fiduciary.  Estate settlement cannot occur without a party who is legally authorized to act.  There are many variables which come into play regarding fiduciary appointment.

In some cases, the decedent left a Last Will and Testament.  This document typically names a person who is to be appointed as the executor.  There may be designations of successor or alternate executors, as well.  When a person dies intestate, without a Will, the provisions of Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 1001 entitled “Order of priority for granting letters of administration,” sets forth the individuals who have the priority right for appointment as an estate administrator.  In the vast majority of matters, there is someone who is either designated in a Will or otherwise has a right pursuant to the estate statutes to be appointed, who will petition the Surrogate’s Court for the authority to act as the estate fiduciary.  In fact, it is not uncommon for there to be estate litigation among competing parties for appointment.  These disputes can be based upon claims that the applicant is unfit or unqualified for appointment or that there are competing documents which the Court should consider in making the appointment.

Once in a while, there are estates where there is no one either qualified, authorized or willing to step forward to initiate estate settlement proceedings.  These matters typically occur where the decedent did not leave a Will and there are no known next of kin who have the authority to commence a proceeding for the appointment of a fiduciary.  There may also be situations where all of the named parties in a Will are deceased or their whereabouts are unknown.  The usual result in these cases is that a Public Administrator is notified.  A Public Administrator is a county official whose role is to administer estates where there is no one either qualified or willing to do so.  The Public Administrator engages its own attorneys who handle the proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court.

shutterstock_204507106-300x254The administration of a New York estate can involve many different aspects relating to the decedent’s lifetime affairs.  For example, after the Court appoints an executor or administrator, issues relating to a business may need to be resolved.  The business may have been in the form of a corporation or other entity such as a limited liability company or partnership.  There may be litigation or claims between the decedent’s estate and other business owners.

Over the years, questions arose as to the extent to which the Surrogate’s Court had the jurisdiction to resolve disputes and issues relating to such matters.  It is now well established that all such issues can be dealt with by the Surrogate.  The Court generally looks to see whether the issue affects the administration or interests of an estate.  If a nexus is found, the Surrogate will usually accept jurisdiction.

Utilizing a broad approach facilitates estate settlement.  It is more efficient to have one Court oversee the many diverse issues affecting an estate and the interests of the beneficiaries.

Estate-Administration-300x200There are many issues associated with the settlement of a New York estate.  In many cases it is not clear as to who is the authorized or designated person entitled to administer an estate.  If a decedent left a Last Will and Testament, the document typically nominates an Executor to handle estate affairs.  When a decedent dies intestate without a Will, usually the next of kin step forward and take action to receive letters of administration.

However, there are frequent situations when there is no Will and no one takes any action to begin estate settlement.  In these cases, a Public Administrator accepts the role of handling an estate.  A Public Administrator is a government official whose job it is to administer the estates of people where there is no one either willing or eligible to do so.  Each county has its own separate official.

When an estate is un-administered for a period of time, it may be subjected to adverse consequences.  For example, taxes may go unpaid and there may be penalties and interest charges.  Mortgages may be delinquent and a foreclosure can occur.  One of the duties of an estate fiduciary is to collect and protect assets.  Also, an estate administrator, like a Public Administrator, needs to determine the identity of a decedent’s distributees (next of kin) so that a proper distribution of estate funds can be made.  All of the aspects of finalizing an estate can become very involved.

original_1074565532-300x107When a person dies leaving a Last Will and Testament, he is said to have died testate.  This is unlike a situation where there is no Will.  In such case, the person is said to have died intestate.  In order for a Will to control the disposition of a decedent’s estate, the document must be filed with the Surrogate’s Court and validated as being authentic.  This is known as the probate process.  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published numerous articles containing information about all aspects of probate in New York.

In the typical case, a Will contains many different provisions concerning the disposition of a decedent’s assets.  There may be specific bequests, the creation of testamentary trusts and residuary dispositions.  Additionally, a Will typically has a provision in which the proposed executors, and if appropriate, trustees are identified.  The designation of fiduciaries and substitute appointments by a testator is very important because it gives priority to the named persons to act in the capacity for which they are nominated.  The Courts are very protective regarding respecting these appointments because the goal is to have the decedent’s choices honored unless there is a very good reason for deviation.

Sometimes, the admission of a Will to probate can be delayed due to a Will contest or other issues such as a kinship determination.  If this happens, Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 1412 entitled “Preliminary letters testamentary” provides the procedure for the appointment of a Preliminary Executor.  A Preliminary Executor can be appointed by the Court to act temporarily before probate is complete.  Such appointment insures that estate settlement can go forward and assets can be protected and collected during the time the full probate is being completed.  A preliminary executor essentially has all of the powers and authority as a permanent executor except for the authority to make distributions to beneficiaries.  Obviously, this is very beneficial to the estate.  Also, the Will may have a provision for the waiving of a bond by the executor.  The Surrogate sometimes requires the preliminary executor to post a surety bond.

Estate-Settlement-300x200Whether a decedent dies intestate without a Last Will and Testament, or with a Will, the retention of an experienced estate attorney can be essential to settling an estate efficiently.  In the case of intestacy, a proceeding to obtain letters of administration will be required to collect assets that are held in the name of the decedent.  A petition for letters of administration requires that all of the decedent’s distributees (next of kin) be identified by name and address.  In many cases, the identity and location of distributees is unknown.  An experienced estate lawyer is familiar with the process of locating unknown heirs and retaining the services of professional genealogists when needed.  Obtaining an Order from the Surrogate’s Court to allow the publication of a Citation for unknown distributees requires a demonstration of a due diligence search.

An attorney can be an essential part of the process in completing kinship issues in these situations.  Sometimes representation in a kinship proceeding may be needed.

As to probate proceedings, the probate process can be complicated.  There are many aspects to having the Surrogate’s Court admit a Will to probate.  A probate attorney is able to examine a Will to see if it was executed properly according to the estate laws.  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 3-2.1 entitled “Execution and attestation of wills; formal requirements” provides the requirements for executing Wills.  Additionally, persons who are dissatisfied with Will provisions may file a Will contest to challenge the validity of the document.  A probate lawyer is familiar with procedures that occur in contested Will cases.  These include dealing with issues such as undue influence and testamentary capacity.  Also, deposition testimony of the attesting witnesses to a Will and the attorney who drafted the Will is part of the Will contest process.

shutterstock_94407685-300x200The process of determining the identity of assets which belong to an estate is a fundamental responsibility of an executor or administrator.  In most cases it is easy to locate a decedent’s bank or financial accounts or real estate.  There are typically statements or deeds or other documents which clearly show the ownership of the asset.  Also, account balances or real estate valuations are available on a routine basis.  Most fiduciaries appointed by the Surrogate’s Court can complete the asset investigation process without much delay.

However, there are numerous instances where asset identification and collection can be complicated and involve estate litigation.  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published many articles concerning assets and estate settlement.  In situations where it appears that a third party is withholding assets which belong to an estate, the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act provides some remedies.  SCPA Section 2105 entitled “Proceeding to compel delivery of property by a fiduciary which is claimed by another or others” allows a fiduciary to engage in discovery measures to ascertain if estate property is being withheld.  Deposition testimony and document review is available to assist in this investigation.  If it appears that assets of an estate are being withheld, the Court can hold a hearing to determine proper ownership.

Another Surrogate’s Court method of review regarding asset collection involves the accounting process.  Accounting proceedings require the administrator or executor to provide to estate beneficiaries all information regarding asset collection and expenditures from an estate.  This allows a beneficiary to examine whether estate assets have been properly collected and disposed of.  A recent Ulster County estate case entitled Estate of Oakley, decided by Ulster Surrogate Sara McGinty on February 9, 2022, concerned an interesting issue regarding estate asset ownership.  In Oakley, an executor had provided an accounting.  Among the contested items relating to the accounting were checks totaling $95,000.00 which appeared to have been signed by the decedent right before death.  These checks were made payable to the executor.  The executor claimed that the checks were given to him by the decedent as gifts.  In reviewing the alleged gift transactions, the Court found that neither of the two checks comprising the $95,000.00 total were credited to the executor’s bank account prior to the decedent’s death.  The Court pointed out that in order for an alleged gift to be completed, the subject of the gift needs to be delivered.  A gift in the form of a check becomes complete when a check has been deposited into and credited to the payee’s account during the lifetime of the donor / payer.  Where the donor dies before the completion of the deposit and the credit, a gift is incomplete.  Since the funds represented by the checks were not transferred, they remained part of the decedent’s assets..  The $95,000.00 was an estate asset.

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