Estate Distribution of Tangible Personal Property is a Common Source of Conflict

shutterstock_330039464-300x200The settlement of an estate in New York involves many facets.  Of course, in its initial phase, the appointment of a fiduciary such as an executor or administrator needs to occur.  Thereafter, the fiduciary engages in the process of identifying and collecting assets, paying or resolving claims, debts or other estate obligations, and then, ultimately, making distributions to the estate beneficiaries.  If a decedent had a Last Will and Testament, then the distribution of estate assets is made according to the terms of the Will.  When there is no Will and a decedent dies intestate, distribution is made in accordance with Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.1 entitled “Descent and distribution of a decedent’s estate.”  The New York Probate Lawyer Blog contains many articles regarding the settlement of a decedent’s estate.

One type of asset which is sometimes overlooked in the estate planning process is tangible personal property.  This asset can be comprised of all sorts of items such as furniture, jewelry, artwork and similar items.  When preparing an estate plan, an estate planning attorney can include provisions in a Will whereby items of property can be specifically bequeathed to named individuals.  For example, a diamond ring can be given to a named child or friend.

It should be noted that EPTL Section 5-3.1 entitled “Exemption for benefit of family,” provides that some of these property items are set aside for a surviving spouse or children under age 21 such as household furniture, musical instruments and appliances, as well as a motor vehicle having a value not exceeding $25,000.00.  These items are not considered to be estate assets.

It is common that a Will does not provide for the specific disposition of tangible personal property and, instead, directs that such property be disposed of in whole.  If all of the tangible property is directed to be given to one person, then no disputes can arise.  However, when the property is disposed of to a group of individuals such as children, controversy may arise in the form of disagreements as to which individual is entitled to which piece of property and whether the distributions are made so that everyone receives an equal share of value.  Resolution of disputes may require estate litigation in the Surrogate’s Court.

A recent Manhattan estate case entitled Matter of Estate of Ackerman decided on July 2, 2021 by Manhattan Surrogate Rita Mella, provides an example of such a dispute.

In Ackerman, the decedent’s Will, in effect, left her tangible personal property to her two daughters.  A dispute arose as to whether items of property were estate assets.  One daughter claimed that a certain item was given to her by the decedent shortly before death, but the daughter did not take possession at that time.  Still other issues surrounded whether the parties had settled their dispute in a prior Court stipulation.  Ultimately, the Court found that all of the tangible personal property items were estate assets to be distributed equally between the two daughters.

As can be seen in Ackerman, it is important in planning an estate to consider provisions regarding the disposition of tangible personal property, as well as other types of assets.  I have assisted clients with estate planning and Surrogate’s Court cases throughout New York.  Call Me Now for a free confidential review of your estate or guardianship matter.  We offer 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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