Did You Know That Estate Litigation is Usually Not For Federal Court

shutterstock_635914376-300x144The forum for proceedings regarding a decedent’s estate is typically the Surrogate’s Court.  Probate proceedings and requests for intestate administration are filed in the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the decedent lived.  For example, if the person lived in Manhattan, the estate proceedings would be filed in the New York County Surrogate’s Court.  This would be so even if the individual happened to die in a different location, say on vacation in another state or country.  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog should be referred to for numerous articles regarding estate proceedings.

Sometimes a litigant may want to commence a legal action regarding an estate in Federal Court rather than the local New York Surrogate’s Court.  However, initiating estate cases in Federal Court may be prohibited.  This is due to a well-known Federal Court rule called the Probate Exception.

In order to utilize the Federal Courts, there needs to be a basis for the Federal Court to have jurisdiction.  Basically, there must be a Federal question presented or diversity jurisdiction.  However, even where diversity jurisdiction may exist, the Federal Probate Exception may preclude Federal Court involvement.  This is what occurred in a recent case decided by Federal District Court Judge Kiyo Matsumoto on May 29, 2020 entitled McKie v. Estate of Dickinson.

This matter involved a claim by a person who was a caretaker for a decedent.  The caretaker asserted that even though the decedent failed to leave a Last Will, the decedent intended to leave her assets to the caretaker.

Based upon these assertions, the caretaker sought relief on his claim in Federal Court.  The Court dismissed the case citing the Probate Exception.  As explained by the Court, the Probate Exception provides that the state court is the proper forum for estate disputes where the controversy involves the probating of a Will or its annulment, or the administration of an estate or control over property which is controlled by the local court.

In Dickinson, the Court found that the caretaker’s action concerned estate administration and jurisdiction over estate property.  As a result, the Federal action was barred due to the Probate Exception.

It should also be pointed out that the caretaker’s claims were rather common.  Very often, individuals fail to create a Will and estate plans that specifically set forth their intentions regarding the disposition of their estates.  When that happens, persons who are not the decedent’s next of kin do not have statutory rights to receive a distributive share of the decedent’s estate.  This is why proper estate planning is essential.  It can avoid estate litigation and complicated estate settlement.

The Surrogate’s Court deals with various types of litigation, including Will contests, breach of fiduciary duty, contested accountings and kinship hearings, just to name a few.  These matters involve various statutes and procedures which can affect the successful outcome of the cases.  Call Me Now for a free confidential review of your estate or trust matter.  We provide reasonable and flexible fee arrangements and personal representation.

New York Trusts and Estates Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 40 years resolve issues relating to guardianship and probate and estate settlement throughout New York City including the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau and Suffolk County.  If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial free consultation.

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