New York Kinship Proceedings Require Adequate Proof of Family Relationship

Estate attorneys in New York are familiar with statutes that provide for the distribution of estate assets to a person’s next of kin. These persons are known as distributees.  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 4-1.1 entitled “Descent and distribution of a decedent’s estate” provides the order of priority to the individuals who may assert inheritance rights.

As discussed in earlier posts in the New York Probate Lawyer Blog, kinship issues can arise in both probate and intestate administration proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court. However, proof of kinship is more commonly an issue where there is no Last Will and potential distributees are asserting rights to inherit the assets of the decedent’s intestate estate.The Surrogate’s Court kinship proceedings require that very complete proof be presented before an award can be made to a potential distributee. This proof is usually in form of birth, death and marriage records and can be difficult to obtain. This is especially so when the decedent is quite old and the records may be in other States or even foreign countries. A recent case decided by Erie County Surrogate Barbara Howe on March 30, 2015 entitled Matter of Reeves, provides an interesting example of a kinship matter. In Reeves, the decedent died intestate at the age of 92 without leaving any known heirs. Typically, when a person dies without a Last Will that names an Executor and without known relatives, a county official called the Public Administrator takes over the administration of the decedent’s estate. When the estate is ready to be finalized, the Public Administrator files an Accounting with the Court and any alleged distributees are given the right to prove their kinship and obtain their distributive share of the estate. In Reeves, a person claiming to be a common-law spouse of the decedent filed a right of election. While New York does have common law marriages, the claim was made pursuant to events occurring in South Carolina where such marriages are recognized. The Court held a hearing to determine whether this person could prove her status as a surviving common-law spouse. Although the person claimed that the common-law marriage existed pursuant to her relationship with the decedent in South Carolina, the New York Court found that the proof presented was insufficient to support the claim of spousal rights.

I have represented numerous clients in kinship proceedings in the Surrogate’s Court.  One of the main goals in preparing an estate plan and having a Last Will is to avoid the uncertainty that surrounds proof of kinship when family members are unknown or are distant relatives such as cousins.   Gathering and presenting kinship proof is very time-consuming and sometimes requires the use of professional genealogists.  If you have any issues or questions regarding kinship or Surrogate’s Court proceedings, please contact me to review your matter.

New York City estate attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in Estate Administration proceedings throughout the past 30 years. I have represented clients in many counties including Suffolk and Westchester Counties. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a Last Will or other aspects of Probate or Estate Administration, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.

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