Interesting Information Concerning Discovery of Estate Assets

shutterstock_204507106-300x254When an Executor or Administrator is appointed by the Surrogate’s Court, the job of estate settlement begins. One of the first orders of business is identifying and collecting the assets of the estate.

The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has discussed the issue of asset protection and collection on many occasions. One of the primary sources of information in this regard is the financial records maintained by the decedent. Typically, the decedent will receive bank statements, brokerage statements and other correspondence that reflect values and other ownership information. Another excellent place to look for evidence of estate assets is the decedent’s prior income tax returns. These documents may contain the names of banks or other sources of dividend or interest income. The tax returns may show ownership rights in real estate, corporations, limited liability companies or partnerships.

Earlier articles in this Blog have referred to Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 2103 entitled “Proceeding by fiduciary to discover property withheld or obtain information.” This statute provides the Administrator or Executor with a legal procedure to obtain verification from third parties who may be withholding or otherwise refusing to give up information concerning possible assets that were owned by a decedent. SCPA 2103 requires that a petition be filed with the Surrogate’s Court and a hearing be held before the Court to obtain the requested relief. While it may take time and effort to commence estate litigation and prosecute these proceedings, there can be very positive results for an estate if property is located and recovered. As an estate lawyer in New York City, I have been involved in numerous SCPA 2103 cases. The Surrogate’s Courts throughout New York are very familiar with these matters and recognize their importance for the successful settlement of an estate.

A recent interesting Westchester estate case reflects how a SCPA 2103 matter can involve a search for information. In Estate of Paragon, decided by Westchester Surrogate Brandon Sall on December 5, 2019, the estate Administrator brought a SCPA 2103 proceeding to obtain emails from a decedent’s Google email account that related to a search for the decedent’s alleged interest in certain real estate. In 2016, a new law was passed in New York which dealt with the manner by which a decedent’s digital assets would be governed. These rules were enacted in Article 13-A of the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law.

In Paragon, the Court applied the guidelines set forth in the digital assets statute. It also found that the email account that was sought to be uncovered was used by the decedent in his law practice. The Surrogate determined that in order to preserve the confidentiality of the decedent’s clients, the Court would only allow initial discovery of a catalogue of the decedent’s emails. In the event the catalogue indicated a relevant non-confidential entry, the Administrator would be able to then ask the Court for permission to review that particular email.

Discovery of a decedent’s assets, as well as debts and obligations, is a primary fiduciary duty. This obligation can be complicated and require the assistance of an experienced estate lawyer. I have represented parties in trust and estate matters throughout the New York Metropolitan area. Call me now for a free review of your estate question. 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 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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