Articles Posted in Intestate Estate

When a person dies without a Last Will and Testament he is known to have died intestate.  In these cases the person’s distributees or next of kin have the statutory right to inherit the estate assets.  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 4-1.1 entitled “Descent and distribution of a decedent’s estate” provides the list of individuals who are entitled to inherit the estate.   The New York Probate Lawyer Blog contains numerous articles discussing intestate estates.

Before the estate can be settled an administrator of the estate must be appointed.  Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) section 1001. entitled “Order of priority for granting letters of administration” designates the distributees who have the priority to be appointed as estate Administrator.   Essentially, the priority under SCPA 1001 follows the inheritance rights under

EPTL 4-1.1.

When a person creates an estate plan he typically prepares a Last Will and Testament.  A Will contains a provision that nominates an Executor.  Thus, in most probate proceedings the selection of the estate fiduciary is not complicated and is controlled by the appointment made by a testator in a Will.

This situation is much different when a person dies intestate – without a Will.  In these cases where the Court is required to appoint an estate Administrator, direction must be obtained from Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) section 1001 entitled “Order of priority for granting letters of administration”.

Pursuant to this statute, the persons entitled to be appointed as Administrator are given priority based upon family relationship.  A spouse of the decedent has first priority, followed by children, grandchildren and then father and mother, brothers and sisters.  A frequent issue that arises in these cases is that there may be multiple individuals in a category who want to act as Administrator and who disapprove of the other applicants.  Since each of these persons has an equal statutory right to be appointed, it is often up to the Court to make a determination as to the appropriate appointee.  This may lead to Estate Litigation in the Surrogate’s Court.

When a person dies without a Last Will he is said to have died intestate. In these types of estates, an application or petition needs to be filed with the Court for the issuance of Letters of Administration.

Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) Section 1001 entitled “Order of priority for granting letters of administration”, lists the persons who have the right to be appointed as the estate administrator. The decedent’s surviving spouse has the initial right of appointment followed by the decedent’s children. Continue reading

When a person dies without a Last Will he is said to have died intestate. The Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) and the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) have numerous provisions that control intestate proceedings. These provisions have been discussed in a number of earlier posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog.

For example, EPTL Section 4-1.1 entitled “Descent and distribution of a decedent’s estate”, sets forth the persons who have a right to receive a share of the intestate estate. As expected, a spouse and children have the primary right to share the estate. If there is no surviving spouse or child, then the next individuals in line to inherit are the decedent’s parents and, if none, to brothers and sisters. The statute then continues to provide for more remote heirs. Continue reading

When a person dies without a Last Will he is deemed to have died intestate. New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) Section 103(28) defines “Intestate” as “A person who dies without leaving a valid will.”

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has published many posts regarding the administration of estates where there is no Will. In these cases the decedent’s distributees (next of kin) have the right to file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court and ask to be appointed as the Estate Administrator. Continue reading

The Administration of a New York Estate where a decedent dies intestate is determined by the laws of descent and distribution. As the New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed in previous posts, New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) Section 4-1.1 provides the list of priority of distributees who are entitled to receive a share of a decedent’s estate when such person dies without a Last Will (“Intestacy”). This list begins with a decedent’s spouse and children, and then goes on to parents, brothers and sisters and more distant next of kin.

New York Estate Lawyers are familiar with the due diligence necessary to determine the identity of a decedent’s next of kin and that sometimes is required when a person’s family tree is unclear. In some cases, the Court may require a Kinship Hearing to determine the rightful estate beneficiaries.

In other situations, the identity of the Estate Heirs may be easy to determine. However, other factors may complicate the Estate Settlement process. For example, a person may be identified as the decedent’s spouse, thus having priority to inherit. Sometimes there are questions concerning the status of the spouse and whether there was a valid marriage ceremony or if a divorce occurred prior to the decedent’s death. Additionally, a spouse may be disqualified to inherit where the spouse “abandoned the deceased spouse”. EPTL 5-1.3.

A similar disqualification can occur with respect to the inheritance rights of a parent. Pursuant to EPTL 4-1.4 a parent will be disqualified from receiving a share of a decreased child’s estate where the parent “(1) has failed or refused to provide for the child or has abandoned such child….”

Questions concerning a parent’s alleged abandonment are typically resolved in Estate Litigation that occurs in the Surrogate’s Court in connection with the Administration Proceeding. Parental rights to inherit from a child’s estate may be a very valuable item. Recently, a case was presented to Surrogate Bruce Balter (Kings County) entitled Estate of Ricardo Ramos. This case was decided on March 6, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on March 25, 2013.

In Ramos the Court was asked by the Estate Administrator to approve a settlement of $900,000 for the wrongful death of the decedent who died due to an accident at work. The decedent’s distributees were his mother and father. The Administrator also asked the Court to allow the entire settlement to be distributed to the decedent’s mother claiming that the father had abandoned the decedent. Following the presentation of evidence to the Court it was found that the father abandoned the decedent “by neglecting or refusing to fulfill “the natural and legal obligations of training, care and guidance owed by a parent to a child . . . . .”

Estate issues regarding Kinship and determining Estate Distributees are important in all estate cases. As a New York Estate Lawyer I have represented many clients and assisted them in resolving concerns regarding inheritance rights.

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The various rights afforded to persons by the New York estate laws generally require that a person be related by blood to a decedent. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 4-1.1 provides the relationship of individuals who can inherit an estate of a decedent who died without a Last Will. The priority established in this statute begins with a surviving spouse and issue and continues through the family tree to great-grandchildren of grandparents. Section (b) of the law provides that the “decedent’s relatives of the half blood shall be treated as if they were relatives of the whole blood.” Thus, half sisters and half brothers, for example, achieve inheritance rights. The statute further recognizes rights of adopted persons. Such familial relationships also afford a person certain rights to contest a Last Will.

However, absent an adoption, a child of a natural parent who has remarried has no rights with regard to the estate of the step-parent. This situation can present many problems, particularly in the case where the child is young. For example, if the child’s natural parent dies, the deceased parent’s estate or a large portion of it may pass to the surviving spouse if there is no Last Will or the Last Will does not provide for the child. Once the surviving spouse has received the estate property, the surviving child has no rights or expectation regarding the estate of the step-parent since there is no blood-relation between them. If the step-parent dies without a Last Will all of the step-parent’s estate, which includes the assets derived from the step-child’s deceased natural parent, may go to the step-parent’s blood relatives. Unfortunately, the step-child would be excluded under the law from participating as a distributee or next of kin of the step-parent.

This problem was recently recognized in Australia where laws have been changed to protect the interests of step-children. An article by Amanda Banks appearing in the West Australian dated December 3, 2012, entitled “Stepchildren get will rights” discusses this topic.

The best remedy for disinheritance of a step-child is for the child’s natural parent to prepare a comprehensive estate plan which includes a Last Will, Living Will, Health Care Proxy and even a Living Trust. The provisions of these documents can provide for estate assets to go to a child and also that the child be appointed as an Executor or Health Care Agent. If the child is a minor, a trust can be created with an independent trustee to protect the property that is given to the child. While disinheriting a child is allowed under New York, the unintended disinheritance of a child in a second marriage situation can have devastating life-long financial consequences.

Many individuals believe that estate planning is only for those that are wealthy and want to limit estate tax liability. In fact, there are many family situations where there are second marriages, adopted children, unknown heirs or other family concerns unassociated with tax issues which require extensive estate planning and foresight.

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Proceedings in the New York Surrogate’s Court, like most Court matters, require that all of the interested parties be given proper notice of the Court action.

In addition to the fundamental fairness that results from proper notice, the Court’s ultimate rulings and Orders generally can have no effect over persons who were not made parties to the proceeding.

The Surrogate’s Court can hear many different types of cases. The most common of these matters is the Probate of a Will or the Intestate Administration of a decedent’s estate. In Probate and Administration proceedings it is mandated that the Court be advised as to identity and location of the decedent’s distributees or next of kin. This information is provided to the Court in the Probate Petition or Petition for Letters of Administration. In most instances distributees are easy to determine since the decedent is survived by a spouse and/or children. However, there are many situations where the closest living relative may be a distant cousin and members of this class of relatives may have had no contact with the decedent for years or decades.

Additionally, locating cousins requires finding relatives that are descendents of the decedent’s grandparents on both the maternal and paternal sides of the family. It is common that when distributees are distant cousins the estate will have to be administered by a public official called a Public Administrator. When the Public Administrator completes the estate administration or estate settlement, an Accounting Proceeding is filed with the Court. It is at this point that the persons claiming to be distributees, such as the cousins, must prove their status in a Kinship Hearing.

When a client confers with me about an estate plan or preparing a Last Will, one of the important items of information I ask for is a family tree or kinship data. Based upon the information provided, a person’s estate plan can be structured by the use of a Living Trust or other plan to avoid post-death complications where kinship data is missing or hard to obtain. It is always a benefit to confer with a qualified New York Estate and Trust lawyer to discuss issues regarding beneficiary designations and planning strategies.

The final estate administration and intentions of a person can be disrupted where Court proceedings are complicated or delayed because all of the parties that need to be notified cannot be determined or located.

Determining the identity of a person’s next of kin can sometimes even involve the use of genetic or DNA testing. A recent article in Arts Beat on September 25, 2012 by Dave Itzkoff reported that a judge had recently ordered DNA testing for a man who claimed to be the brother of Sherman Hemsley, who had starred in the “Jefferson’s” television sitcom.

DNA testing is also authorized under Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.2 where a person claims to be the heir of a father who was not married to his mother. Needless to say, the determination of a person’s next of kin and the protection of the rights of estate beneficiaries can be very complex and consultation with experienced estate attorneys and even a genealogist is highly recommended.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed many issues that arise in connection with intestacy. When a person is said to have died intestate it means that his or her estate is to be distributed without the benefit of a Last Will. The relevant local laws of intestacy determine which persons (i.e., next of kin) are to inherit the decedent’s estate.

An intestate estate can arise when a person does not execute a Last Will prior to death. It can also occur when a person purportedly signs a Will but the Will is lost or there is a Will Contest litigation and the document is not admitted to probate.

The recent untimely death of Amy Winehouse is a typical example of someone who did not prepare a Last Will. When there is no Will, the intestacy laws of a person’s domicile or primary home determine who is to inherit. In Ms. Winehouse’s case, the laws of Great Britain provided that her parents were to inherit her estate. Ms. Winehouse was not married and had no children at the time of her death.

Without having a Last Will, a person cannot control who is to inherit estate assets. Although creating joint accounts and naming beneficiaries for retirement funds, life insurance and other assets can help avoid the effect of intestacy laws, any assets held by a decedent in his or her own name alone are subject to the statutes. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries selected by the controlling laws may not be the persons the decedent wanted to receive their estate.

Not only do intestacy laws dictate who is to receive estate assets, the decedent is forced to forego any possibility of estate planning for tax savings. Ms. Winehouse’s estate value was in excess of $6 million and may have benefited from estate planning. Without pre-planning by a Last Will or Trust documents valuable credits for estate tax protection may be lost that can benefit younger generations. Additionally, a person who does not have a Last Will cannot select Executors, Trustees and Guardians. Once again, the local laws governing intestacy determine the persons who can hold estate positions such as an Estate Administrator.

Preparing a Last Will and other estate planning papers such as a Living Will and Health Care Proxy are important. Statutes controlling intestate estates should be avoided along with their unintended results.

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A New York estate proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court requires the participation of all interested parties. First and foremost, a decedent’s distributees (next of kin) must be identified so that proper notice, usually in the form of a Citation or Notice, can be sent to the parties at their current address. A due diligence search must be made to determine both the identity and address of all distributees. Both Probate and Intestate Administration proceedings require that these parties be included in the case. Failure to properly include necessary parties in Estate proceedings, particularly where estate litigation is involved, can create a defect whereby the Court’s final determination may be subject to being found void.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has previously discussed issues involved where a decedent-father had children but was not married to the child’s mother at the time the child was born. These non-marital children – distributees – usually face an uphill battle to show that they are, in fact, children of the decedent, and that they are entitled to a share of the decedent’s estate or other rights they are given as distributees in the Court process.

New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.2 entitled “Inheritance by non-marital children”, sets forth the grounds and manner by which a non-marital child can demonstrate his or her relationship. The statute provides that a non-marital child “is the legitimate child of his mother.” However, with respect to his father, unless there is some Court Order or official determination of paternity, the most common avenue to prove kinship is to follow the statutory direction and provide “clear and convincing evidence” that “the father openly and notoriously acknowledged the child as his own.” The statute also provides for proof by “genetic marker testing.”

I have represented individuals who sought to inherit an estate where it was necessary to present evidence to the Court that satisfied EPTL 4-1.2. A hearing is commonly held by the Surrogate or a Court referee and documents and witnesses are presented to satisfy the legal requirements of open and notorious acknowledgement.

In a recent case decided by Westchester Surrogate Anthony A Scarpino on January 19, 2012 and reported in the New York Law Journal on January 27, 2012 entitled, Matter of the Estate of Michael Konstantin, issues regarding proper notice of Surrogate’s Court proceedings and proof of kinship of a non-marital child converged. In Konstantine, a proceeding was commenced by a non-marital child to vacate the probate of the decedent’s Last Will and the distribution of millions of dollars of wrongful death proceeds on the ground that the non-marital child was not included as a party to the prior proceedings and was entitled to receive a share of the proceeds. Based upon the evidence presented to the Court, the Surrogate found that the child presented some evidence that “the decedent openly and notoriously acknowledged the non-marital child as his own” and also showed that genetic marker testing was a proper method of discovery. Therefore, the Court directed that the decedent’s other children submit to genetic marker testing which has a high probability of showing whether the non-marital child had a common father.

Surrogate’s Court cases require the assistance of experienced estate attorneys who are familiar with the rules and procedures of estate settlement to protect the interest of the parties interested in a decedent’s estate.

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