Estate Litigation Can Complicate and Delay Settlement of Decedent’s Estates

Attorneys familiar with probating a Last Will throughout New York, such as in the Bronx and Brooklyn, are often confronted with issues that result in Court litigation. Many of these controversies involve family disputes and disagreements that have origins many years before the death of the decedent. Once a person dies, opportunities are presented to activate long held disagreements and family disharmony.

It is not uncommon for a testator to prepare a Will and disinherit a child or other close relative. New York law does not require that a person leave anything to a child. However, as previously discussed in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, Estates, Powers and Trusts Law section 5-1-1-A requires that a portion of an estate be left to a spouse.

After being disinherited, a disgruntled child can use the requirements of the probate process to Contest a Will. In his or her view, the testator’s Will should be deemed invalid because lack of capacity or undue influence was the cause of the disinheritance and not the personal disharmony that existed for many years. Since the decedent is no longer around to express his or her desires, it is now up to the Court and the litigants to sort out the family dynamics or dysfunctional relationships.

Will contests in the New York Surrogate’s Court, like elsewhere, can be time consuming and costly. Examinations of attesting witnesses, review of the Will execution ceremony and discovery of information reflecting upon the decedent’s capacity can be an excruciating experience for the family members involved. A recent article by Mary Ann Spato appearing in on July 26, 2011 recounted the story of author Belva Plain who died last October. It appears that for almost 20 years prior to her death the decedent had fully supported her son, John, based upon an agreement that John would not contact members of the family or claim any part of her estate. Notwithstanding the agreement, after Belva died, John sought to void the agreement and claimed that his mother had been unduly influenced by his sisters. The Court ultimately ruled against John finding that he had no claim against his mother’s estate.

A similar pattern was seen with regard to the estate of the late entertainer James Brown. As reported by Matt Birbeck on July 20, 2011 in, Brown, who had an estate valued at about $100 million dollars, died in 2006. He left almost his entire estate to a Trust to benefit underpriviledged children in South Carolina and Georgia. However, after a Will contest by his seven children and fourth wife, the estate was split between the family and the Trust. Nevertheless, as reported, none of the estate money has yet to be paid out and there is still an ongoing dispute concerning Brown’s final place of burial.

Another area that has been a source of many Court battles concerns the transfer of a person’s assets prior to their death. Such transfers can destroy even the best estate plan and leave an estate without any assets to be paid to the beneficiaries named in a Last Will. The creation of joint ownership or designating beneficiaries on bank accounts causes these assets to pass to a joint owner or beneficiary automatically upon death, thus insulating them from the control of an estate fiduciary such as an Executor or Administrator. The provisions of a Will or the intestate statutes are essentially avoided. As a Nassau estate attorney, I have seen many instances where children, friends and caretakers rearrange a person’s assets prior to death by having their names added as co-owners or beneficiaries. After the decedent passes on, the Will beneficiaries and estate Executor or Administrator are faced with the arduous task of engaging in litigation to discover and recover the decedent’s assets. Questions of undue influence and intent surround these proceedings and the decedent cannot express his or her actual desires.

As a Brooklyn probate lawyer, I have helped many clients over the past 30 years throughout New York resolve issues relating to estate administration and settlement in New York Probate and Administration proceedings. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.

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