Articles Posted in Wills, Estates, and Trusts

I often get calls from people concerned about deeds to real property when someone dies without a will.   When a property owner dies intestate (without a will) the transfer of their real property does not require any action by an administrator or executor. Instead, title to the deceased’s real estate automatically passes to and vests in their heirs or next of kin at the time of death by operation of law.  Under New York law, when someone dies intestate, their distributees become tenants in common of any real property the deceased owned.  This means each heir acquires an undivided fractional interest in the property.  The share of each heir depends on their relationship to the deceased. For example, if the only heirs are the deceased’s children, each child would receive an equal share as Tenants in Common.  A “tenant in common” is owns an undivided interest that, if that tenant dies, that persons’ share passes to their heirs or to the people specified in the terms of the deceased tenant’s will.

When there is no will, the vesting of title occurs by operation of law at the moment of death, regardless of whether an administrator is ever appointed or new deeds are recorded. As several New York appellate court decisions have held, no affirmative act by an administrator is needed for the heirs to acquire their interests in the real estate.  (see U.S. Bank Trust, N.A. v Gedeon, 181 AD3d 745, 747; Matter of Blango, 166 AD3d 767, 768; Kraker v Roll, 100 AD2d 424, 429).   The intestacy statute confers title automatically based on the heirs’ relationship to the deceased.  Recording new deeds can provide evidence of the change in title, but the failure to do so does not prevent the vesting by descent. The heirs become tenants in common of the real property at the time of death even if no new deeds are filed.

That means, even if there have been on administration proceedings to appoint an estate representative, under New York’s partition statute, the heirs (as tenants in common) have the right to maintain an action to partition and force the sale of the subject property (see RPAPL 901[1]). New York case law confirms the heirs’ standing to bring a partition action in Supreme Court after inheriting property intestate (see Goldberger v Rudnicki, 94 AD3d 1048, 1050; Graffeo v Paciello, 46 AD3d 613, 614).

(Nyack, New York)  I wanted to follow up on my prior blog post about “tenants by the entirety.”  As I pointed out in that post,

It is interesting to consider what other “ramifications” owning property as tenants by the entirety might have.   Given the “undivided” nature of the ownership relationship, a question about whether a creditor might be able to somehow “levy” against one spouses “share” of the real property might arise.   Generally, most commentators suggest that the undivided nature of the interest makes one spouse’s interest in the property indivisible, meaning that the creditor cannot force the partition of the tenancy by the entirety without the debt being against both tenants, or spouses.

In New York, when a married couple purchases real estate the interest that the married couple has in the property is called a tenancy by the entirety.  In that form of ownership, each party is said to have an undivided interest in the whole property.  It is as if the married couple is “one person” in the eyes of the law.  This type of ownership has certain benefits for the married couple.  One of those benefits is that when one spouse dies, the other spouse automatically becomes the owner of the entire interest in the real property.    So, in the above example, when one member of the married couple dies, the property would automatically pass to the surviving spouse.

(Nyack, New York- April 3, 2020)  We all hear the horrible, and getting worse, stories of loved ones sick, suddenly finding themselves in the hospital, incapacitated, and no longer in touch with their family members, unable to pay their own bills, manage assets, or even make medical decisions.  With the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19), this scenario is a growing concern, and unfortunately, a growing reality for many.

What are common issues families face when a loved one is incapacitated and what Estate Planning documents might give all a piece of mind:

*  No power to make medical decisions if you are unable to communicate your medical wishes;

For most things in life the original is better than its copy. In the context of wills and estate probate, the original is generally required. So, when may the heirs offer a copy of someone’s will to probate in New York?

In New York, a copy of the orignal will may be offered to probate if the administrator or executor can establish that: (1) the will was not revoked; (2) execution of the will was proved in the manner required for the probate of an original will; >and (3) all provisions of the will are clearly and distinctly proven by each of at least two credible witnesses or by a copy of the will proved to be true and complete. See New York Surrogate Court Practice Act § 1407.

Surrogate courts are not going to absolutely accept a copy for probate without strong proof of each of the foregoing elements because the law generally presumes that if there was no original, it was revoked by the person who died. That is, a will that is “shown to have existed,” and was in the testator’s possession at the time of their death, that will is presumed destroyed by the testator and, therefore, revoked. See In Re Evans, 264 A.D.2d 484 (2d Dep’t 1999). By introduction of the statute, the presumption may be “rebutted,” by showing all the three elements. Where the Testator had the last will and testament in her possession at death, the law takes extra steps to protect the presumption that the dead person did NOT intentionally revoke the will. Afterall, the testator cannot explain their desires.

Surrogate Courts in New York may require a probate bond – also called an “executor bond,” an “administrator bond,” or a “trustee bond” – when an individual is appointed to handle the distribution of a deceased person’s estate. The bond acts as a guarantee that the estate’s debts will be paid and the assets will be distributed properly. Before a bond will be issued, bond companies will review the credit history of the person administering the estate to assess their risk in issuing the bond.

Depending upon the facts and circumstances, the Surrogate Court sitting in Rockland, Dutchess, or Westchester County, New York, may require a bond if the gross value of the probate assets for the estate is $30,000 or more. N.Y. Surrogate’s Court Procedure, § 801-1(a) and § 1301-1. The amount of the bond required is determined by the court, but is generally equal to the value of the property in the estate, including rents on real property for 18 months and the “probable recovery” of any lawsuit being prosecuted by the fiduciary of the estate. N.Y. Surrogate’s Court Procedure, § 801-1(a). The size of the bond will depend upon the number of “creditors” and the claimed amount due.

The premiums on the bond are paid from the deceased person’s estate. Bond premiums are generally paid annually until the estate is settled, i.e. all of the property has been distributed. In your will, you may direct that the court not require a bond. By doing this, you will save your estate money on bond premiums, but there will no longer be a third-party guarantee ensuring that your estate is properly distributed.

The New York Times recently ran an article highlighting the myriad of legal obstacles gay couples face in raising a family together.

For example, although many states allow a second mother to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, when a same sex married couple travels to a state that does not recognize their union, the relationship established by the child’s birth certificate may not be recognized (despite the general principle that state courts give full faith and credit to other states’ judgments).

This failure to recognize the same sex parent-child relationship can have widespread consequences. For example, an unrecognized parent may not have authority to make medical or other decisions for the child, and in the event of the legally recognized parent’s death, the other spouse would not necessarily be granted guardianship of the child.

So maybe your will was drafted a while ago or you are just starting to put together your important papers in anticipation of getting a new will. You’ve considered all the basics: who gets the house, the cash and stocks, and who will take care of your children, but have you thought about what will happen to your social media accounts when you die?

Most social media sites will not give your account information to anyone in an effort to protect your privacy, but allow certain people to cancel your account upon your death. For example, Facebook has a policy of “memorializing” deceased users’ accounts, and permits only confirmed friends to see the deceased user’s profile and post on their page. Facebook allows immediate family members to request the removal of a deceased user’s account, but it will not provide login information to anyone. Twitter has a similar policy allowing family members or other “authorized” persons to deactivate a deceased user’s account, but will not provide login information to third parties. LinkedIn also allows family members or other survivors to close an account upon satisfactory verification of a user’s death. On the other hand, email providers like Gmail, allow authorized persons to access the deceased user’s email account upon a lengthy verification process, including obtaining a Court Order directing Google to disclose account information.

In New York earlier this year, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduced legislation that would allow users to appoint an “online executor” in their will providing them with the authority to cancel social media accounts upon the user’s death. The Committee on Judiciary is currently considering the bill. Other states have enacted similar legislation in an effort to bring probate laws into the 21st century.

In February 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (including New York) handed down a decision that should have every attorney dotting their “I’s” and crossing their “T’s.” In Fischer & Mandell LLP v. Citibank, 632 F.3d 793 (2d Cir. 2001), the court affirmed summary judgment against a law firm who deposited a client’s check into a bank, and disbursed the funds as requested by the client before the check cleared the account.

The facts were as follows: in January 2009, plaintiff-appellant, Fischer & Mandell LLP, received from a new client what appeared to be an official Wachovia Bank check. Id. at 795. The check was made payable to the firm, and the firm was advised that it represented partial payment of a debt owed by another entity to the client. The firm then deposited this check for $225,351 into its account at defendant-appellee, Citibank. In the usual case, if there is enough money in the account to cover the check, the bank will make the funds available immediately, before the check clears-that is what happened here. Id.

The client then requested two wire transfers of a portion of the funds-one to South Korea, and then next to Canada. After both transfers were complete, the Federal Reserve Bank returned the check as dishonored and unpaid. Id. at 796. A Citibank representative then telephoned the firm to advise them of the counterfeit check. Citibank then charged back to the trust account the amount of the check and a $10 returned check fee, resulting in an overdraft. Id. Next, Citibank debited an amount necessary to satisfy the overdraft from a money market account the firm had at Citibank.

Lets face it-once you are gone, you cannot come back and explain what you did in your will and why you did it. The goal is to make a bulletproof will that will save your family heartache, the stress of court proceedings, time, and money. There are certain key points to follow to ensure this.

First, if your will is not validly executed, the will is ineffective. You will be deemed to have died intestate, thereby giving up your right to distribute your assets as you wish. Therefore, it is very important to make sure that your will has been properly executed. In New York, this requires certain formalities, which include your signature and the signature of two disinterested witnesses.

Second, you should explain in your will what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you make a peculiar bequest, one that you know your family will fight about down the line, it is helpful to explain why you did this and your intention behind it. This will ward off most claims of undue influence or lack of capacity. At times, I have advised people to leave a separate letter drawn in your own hand explaining things.

As life becomes complicated, you become incapacitated, you are living alone, or if you just want to be prepared for emergencies; it is very important to organize your important papers so that loved ones can pick up the pieces in a moment’s notice. When I speak to a client who wants to prepare a will, I often tell that client to gather all of your important papers and information into one place so that another person might know how to find such information for you.

But, what is that “important paper” that should be gathered up and stored in an easy to access location?

Here’s a partial list of items you can use to get “organized.”

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