Articles Posted in Intestate Estate

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed on a number of occasions the many problems created when a person dies without a Last Will and Testament. One of the major issues faced in estate settlement and estate administration in such cases is determining the identity of the decedent’s distributees or next of kin. This determination is essential because the distributees are the individuals designated by law that will inherit the estate assets. As previously referred to in blog posts, New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law section 4-1.1 provides a list of persons who have priority of inheritance.

It is quite common that a kinship hearing is required to determine the identity of distributees. Proof of kinship can be time-consuming, expensive and difficult. A recent example of the complexities of kinship determination was displayed in Matter of the Estate of Esther Onetha Springer, decided by Kings County Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres on April 8, 2011. Esther Springer died in 1988 owning a one-half interest in her residence. Based upon investigation followed by testimony and other proof at Court hearings, it appeared that Esther had two children. One of those children, Clyde, had moved to California and died in 2001. Therefore, a determination needed to be made as to Clyde’s distributees. According to the Court decision, Clyde “had fathered a number of children from a number of relationships, marital and non-marital. . . .” It appears that Clyde had eight children and the New York Surrogate determined that it was necessary to use California law to establish Clyde’s distributees. The Court was ultimately able to determine kinship.

I have assisted clients throughout New York including Manhattan and Queens in kinship and intestate administration matters. As can be seen from the Esther decision, it is essential to prepare appropriate estate planning documents such as a Living Trust and Last Will and Testament to avoid the uncertainties of intestate proceedings. Additionally, in the event a person dies without proper planning, a good New York Trust and Estate attorney is important to help protect the rights of estate beneficiaries and to properly administer the decedent’s estate.

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We recently reported on our New York Probate Lawyer Blog about the need for ancillary estates to dispose of out-of-state real estate in cases that go through probate court.

Estate planning lawyers in New York City understand there are many options for avoiding probate. In some cases trusts or other options can be a desirable alternative. As part of our ongoing series on Avoiding Probate in New York, we will take a look at the options to transfer real estate.In general, those estates governed by a Last Will (or Intestate estates without a Will) will enter the probate court process. Probate court is a state process however, and as such it typically will not dispose of real estate or other hard assets owned in another state. It can be necessary to enter the probate process in that state as well, unless you own those assets in trust or other arrangements for avoiding probate have been made.

Some states allow automatic transfer of ownership of the property to your chosen heir. You may hold the property in joint ownership. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship will permit your spouse (or chosen heir) to assume ownership and continue living in the house after your passing.

Probate is not avoided if both owners die at the same time and the last surviving owner must make other arrangements to dispose of the property. In some cases, naming a joint tenancy may also trigger gift taxes. And it can create several headaches that can make it a poor choice for an older person who is seeking to transfer ownership after his or passing.

Joint tenancy involving other assets, such as bank accounts, can also create disputes after your death. In cases, for example, where joint tenancy on a bank account is granted to assist with bills, the person may claim those funds automatically, which may not be in keeping with the original intent of the account owner.

Consulting an estate planning lawyer in New York is the best way to make sure your affairs are in order and that your estate passes to your chosen heirs in the manner of your choosing.

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The New York Probate Blog has discussed on many occasions the probate procedure in New York. Probate is the legal process by which a Will is validated by the Surrogate’s Court. The procedure to probate a Will encompasses many facets. Initially, a Probate Petition is prepared and filed with the Court.

The Probate Petition contains basic information regarding the petitioner who is usually the proposed Executor. The Petition is usually prepared with the guidance of an experienced New York Trusts and Estate attorney. Details regarding the decedent, the date of the purported Last Will, the names of the attesting witnesses to the Will and the estimated value of the probate estate are also included. An essential section of the petition requires that the names and addresses of the decedent’s distributees, or next of kin, be provided. The reason for requiring this data is because the distributees have a right to receive official notice of the probate proceeding since they have an interest in contesting the Will. In the event the decedent died without a Will or the purported Last Will is deemed to be invalid, the distributees would inherit the estate according to the laws of intestacy. Therefore, a proper kinship determination is essential to the probate process.

In a recent New York decision, H. Kenneth Ranftle v. Craig Leiby, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, decided on February 25, 2011, that a same-sex Canadian marriage between the decedent and his partner would be recognized by the New York Court. Thus, in this Manhattan Probate case, the decedent’s sole distributee was determined by the Court to be his same-sex “spouse”. The decedent’s siblings were found not to be distributees since the New York Statute, EPTL 4-1.1, gives priority to a spouse. The siblings were precluded from challenging the decedent’s Will.

I have helped many clients prepare probate petitions. Obtaining information regarding distributees and giving them the proper Court mandated notice is a paramount objective. The accurate completion of the probate petition greatly helps speed up a successful Will probate.

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The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed the difference between probate proceedings where a decedent has prepared a Last Will and Administration proceedings where a decedent dies without a Last Will or intestate. Whether or not a person has prepared a Will, it is necessary for purposes of the Surrogate’s Court proceedings to determine the decedent’s next of kin or “distributees.”

Distributees are the decedent’s closest surviving relatives who would inherit his or her estate pursuant to the New York laws of intestacy. When a person dies without a Will, it may be easy to determine his or her distributees if there is a surviving spouse or children. However, when a decedent’s closest surviving relatives are cousins or more distant relations, the Court will require that proof of kinship be presented. Kinship proof requires a very detailed and verifiable presentation of a decedent’s heirship history or family tree on both the maternal and paternal side of the decedent’s family. Such proof can include Court testimony from witnesses personally knowledgeable with the decedent and his or her relatives, and the submission to the Court of documents such as death certificates, birth certificates, marriage certificates, obituary notices in newspapers, government census records, cemetery records, probate court records, church and other religious ceremony papers and military records. The types of documentation that may be useful in proving kinship is endless as long it tends to show a connection between the decedent and his or her heirs.

Obtaining the testimony and documents necessary for a kinship hearing in Surrogate’s Court may be complicated if the witnesses or papers are located in countries outside of the United States. It is a common practice in these cases to hire the services of a professional genealogist to assist with the determination of a family tree and locating the necessary proof.

I have helped many clients prove kinship in both probate and intestate administration proceedings. An experienced New York Probate Lawyer can help estate beneficiaries protect their interests in estates where kinship must be proved.

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New York and Federal Laws generally provide many advantages and protections for married individuals. For example, in New York a person may not disinherit his or her spouse. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) Section 5-1.1-A provides a spouse with a Right of Election to take a portion of the deceased spouse’s estate. This share is, subject to a complex formula, equal to the greater of $50,000.00 or one-third of the estate.

Similarly, when a spouse dies intestate (without a Last Will), Section 4-1.1 of the EPTL provides for the spouse to obtain the entire estate or at least $50,000.00 and one-half of the residue or balance if the decedent had issue (i.e., children). Also, New York Courts have given spousal status to the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage performed in a jurisdiction outside of New York.

On the Federal level, the Federal (and New York) estate tax laws provide for a 100% marital deduction for assets passing upon death between spouses. However, the Federal estate tax spousal deduction has been denied to a same-sex couple. As reported in the New York Law Journal on November 12, 2010 by Victor Li, New Challenges To DOMA Filed in Connecticut and New York, the Federal 1996 Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) “defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.”

Thus, pursuant to DOMA, and as reported in the Article, the federal estate tax marital deduction was denied to the surviving partner of a same-sex marriage which resulted in a tax liability of $363,053.

As reported, a number of federal lawsuits are pending challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. As can be seen from this controversy, a person’s status as a spouse and as a distributee (next of kin) of a decedent can be the subject of contention and litigation in the New York Surrogate’s Court. The determination of these issues can effect the rights of individuals to inherit from a decedent as well as the tax liability of the decedent’s estate.

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A New York estate usually contains many different types of assets. These assets can include bank accounts, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts and real estate. A beneficiary’s interest in these assets is determined by the nature or manner in which these assets are owned or titled. For example, a bank account in the sole name of a decedent will be distributed according to the decedent’s Last Will or, if none, the laws of intestacy. However, a bank account held in the name of the decedent “in trust for” a named beneficiary will be distributed directly to the designee upon the decedent’s death regardless of the Last Will or intestacy laws.

Among all of these asset transfer variations, the disposition of real property often presents the most complexity. This is due to the many complex rules regarding the ownership and transfer of real estate.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog provides a reference to New York issues and problems presented in decedent’s estates and estate settlement. A recent case that dealt with the disposition of a decedent’s real estate was Holder v. Smartt, Index No. 3384/08, Supreme Court Kings County, decided November 11, 2010 and reported in the New York Law Journal on November 29, 2010. In Holder, real property had been tranfered by the executor of an estate by an executor’s deed to “Arthur Holder and Shirley Holder a/k/a Shirley Stewart, his wife, …. and Lydia Smartt ….”

After Arthur Holder died, his surviving spouse Shirley, commenced a partition action against Lydia Smartt to have the real property sold and the proceeds of sale distributed between them. A partition action is a court proceeding whereby a co-owner of real property can have a Court direct the sale of the property and the distribution of the sales proceeds.

In enforcing its determination as to partition, the Honorable David I. Schmidt was asked to rule on the interest of an alleged son of Arthur Holder who claimed that as a distributee of Arthur’s estate, he had an interest in the real property. The Court found that under New York law, “when real property is conveyed to a husband and wife and a third party, the husband and wife have one moiety as tenants by the entirety, and the third person is a tenant in common with them of the other ….” Thus, since Arthur was married to Shirley when he died, his entire interest in the property passed to Shirley upon his death who then owned the property with Lydia Smartt. Since the son had no interest in the property, the Court directed that the sale of the property continue and the sales proceeds be distributed between Shirley and Lydia.

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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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By some measure, more than half of all adults will die without a will. In some cases, the consequences for those left behind can be quite severe. Proper planning can ensure your estate goes to your loved ones, that you are protected from excess taxation, and that you can enjoy life with the peace of mind that comes with knowing your affairs are in order.

New York City Probate Attorney
Jules Martin Haas and the staff at his law office wish each of you a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend with friends and family. These gatherings may be the perfect opportunity to open a general dialogue with relatives about such planning.These conversations do not have to be morbid. Nor do they need to be prying or invasive. By starting a conversation that includes younger relatives, our older loved ones will feel more comfortable and may be more apt to share. It will become apparent rather quickly whether they have done the proper planning, and whether the issue has been on their mind in a way that such a conversation provides the necessary outlet and relief.

At the very least, it can help put a loved one’s wishes on the record in front of the whole family. And it may be the catalyst necessary to prompt more thorough and proper estate planning. Here are some basic issues and talking points.

Intestate Estate: This is what happens to an estate without a will. It is distributed by probate court in accordance with state law, which means your estate will pass to your spouse and/or other close relatives in outward concentric circles (children, parents, siblings, etc.) The drawbacks are many and include an inability to choose heirs or to divide your estate in a manner of your choosing. Those omitted from an estate typically include step-children, former spouses, friends or domestic partners.

Trusts and Living Trusts: Trusts are not just for the rich and famous. Establishing a trust may allow your estate to bypass the probate court process. If your Will is probated it will become a public record for all to see. Establishing a trust may also have certain tax advantages.

Powers of Attorney: Powers of Attorney can serve a purpose but can also be ripe for abuse and are best narrowly tailored for a specific circumstance.

Living Will:
Advanced Directives, Health Care Proxies and other similar documents allow you to make your wishes known and designate a person to carry them out in the event that you become incapacitated.

May be established to assist a person with managing their personal and/or financial affairs.

Special Needs Trust: Can be established to care for a loved one with special needs after your passing. Establishing such a trust can be critical to ensuring that an inheritance does not disqualify them from receiving government health care or other assistance to which they are entitled.

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New York estate laws provide many protections for husbands and wives with regard to their spouse’s estate. For example, if a spouse dies intestate (i.e. without a Last Will), Estates, Powers and Trusts Law section 4-1.1 provides that the surviving spouse will receive the entire estate if no issue (i.e., children) survive or $50,000.00. and one-half of the estate if issue do survive.

Where a spouse dies and leaves a Last Will and Testament, New York Law prevents one spouse from disinheriting the other. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 5-1.1-A provides a rather complex set of guidelines that attempt to ensure that a surviving spouse receives at least the greater of $50,000.00 or one-third of the decedent’s estate.

Because of the provisions guaranteeing a spouse an interest in the others estate, concerns may arise where one spouse has substantial family assets and the other spouse has little or no personal estate. The inheritance of a family fortune over successive generations may be an important pre-marital consideration.

In such instances, and also with possible matrimonial divorce concerns in mind, a pre-nuptial agreement may be a consideration. These agreements can limit and delineate spousal rights in the case of death or a divorce. The upcoming royal wedding of William and Kate is a perfect case-in-point. Pre-nuptial agreements, like all estate and financial planning documents, involve much consideration and extensive preparation. They can be very helpful but also the source of dispute and litigation.

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A New York Administration Proceeding is typically required when a person dies intestate without leaving a Last Will and Testament. New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.1 provides the statutory guide for the intestate distribution of estate assets beginning with the decedent’s spouse and issue (i.e. children and their decedents). If no spouse or child survives then the property goes to the next class of living heirs such as parents, siblings and so on.

In many Administration proceedings, the identity and whereabouts of a decedent’s next of kin or distributees are unknown or only partially identifiable. This situation is more prevelant where the decedent never married or never had any children. So-called “cousin cases”, i.e: where the next of kin are cousins or even more distant heirs, usually require a kinship proceeding whereby the Surrogate’s Court can be satisfied as to the proper individuals to receive the decedent’s estate. New York Public Administrators are typically appointed to handle the estate administration in these cases. Generally, a kinship proceeding is the Court process whereby evidence in the form of documents, such as birth and death records, and the testimony of the decedent’s family and acquaintances is submitted to show relationship to the decedent. Very often professional genealogists are needed to testify as to the nature and extent of diligent searches that have been performed, sometimes in many different countries, to eliminate the possibility that unknown heirs exist. Kinship proceedings are complex and involve numerous rules of evidence and presumptions in law. For example, a person who would have been more than 100 years old when the decedent died is presumed to have predeceased the decedent.

There are also technical procedural requirements. When kinship cannot be proved to the Court’s satisfaction, the estate property is paid to the state comptroller. New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) Section 2222. However, pursuant to SCPA Section 2225, when three (3) years have passed after the decedent’s death, an application can be made to the Court to withdraw the estate funds from the state and have them paid to the known distributees by demonstrating that a diligent and exhausting search was made for all unknown heirs.

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