New York Executors Have Fiduciary Responsibilities and Are Subject to Court Review

The New York estate settlement process involves many different requirements and responsibilities. An Executor is the person or institution appointed by the Surrogate’s Court to administer or carry out the terms or provisions in a Last Will. The responsibilities of a person named as Executor begins immediately after the death of the decedent.

An Executor’s first duty is to file the Will with the Court and prepare a petition for probate. The Court must officially appoint the Executor before he or she has authority to handle estate affairs. While information provided in the probate petition is the same whether filed in Nassau, Suffolk or Queens counties, it may not always be easy to provide the required data. Among the items needed to be completed is a list of the names and addresses of all of the decedent’s distributees (i.e., next of kin). While this may be a simple task where a decedent is survived by a spouse and/or children, the information may not be so easy to provide where the decedent’s closest relatives are cousins and spread out throughout many different countries.

In a number of estates where I represented the Executor, distributees numbered in the twenties and many lived overseas. Also, particular problems arise when the decedent was orphaned or estranged from his or her family at a young age.

The named Executor is often faced with kinship issues such as these. Also, the potential for a Will Contest always exists. Thus, the Executor’s obligations can be quite extensive and complex even before the actual administration of the estate begins.

Once the Executor is actually appointed by the Court, it is his or her job to collect the decedent’s assets; pay bills, taxes and claims; and distribute the estate assets to the estate beneficiaries. In some instances, the Will may name more than one person as Executor and disputes may arise between the Executors. In a recent case decided by Surrogate Edward W. McCarty on June 2, 2011 and reported in the New York Law Journal on June 20, 2011, one of the Executors interfered with the sale of the decedent’s
residence. This conduct prompted the other Executor to commence a Court proceeding pursuant to Surrogate’s Court Procedure Action section 719 for removal of the Executor.

Even routine matters may pose extraordinary problems. As noted above, one duty of an Executor as a fiduciary is to determine and satisfy a decedent’s debts or the claims against the estate. An Executor who improperly performs this task may end up personally responsible for payment. However, determining the extent and validity of a claim or debt can be difficult. As reported by Letitia Stein on July 27, 2011 in the St. Petersburg Times, a lawsuit was filed against the estate of a woman by a hospital which claimed the deceased woman incurred over 9 million dollars in medical expenses prior to her death.

Determining and paying estate taxes or estate income taxes is also a complex matter. Just this past year Executors and other fiduciaries were required to examine the new tax laws very closely to determine whether an option concerning the cost basis of estate assets or utilizing an increased estate tax exemption would be most beneficial.

Distributing estate assets to beneficiaries can also have many problems. Quite often, beneficiaries are minors and payment must be made to a Trust or to a Guardian appointed by the Court. Also, beneficiaries may not agree with the calculations utilized in computing their shares or may object to some action taken or not taken by the Executor. A contested accounting proceeding may result from these disputes. Additionally, a beneficiary may die before receiving his or her distribution and a proper estate fiduciary must be appointed for the beneficiary’s estate before his or her share can be paid out.

The many responsibilities and issues faced by Executors and other estate fiduciaries in administering an estate are endless. Having an experienced estate settlement attorney is important to advise the fiduciary concerning these matters in estate administration

Queens Estate Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to probate and estate settlement throughout New York City including Manhattan and Queens. 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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