Determining The Heirs When The Deceased Dies Without a Will
It is typically the case that determining the rightful distributees to a decedent’s estate who dies without a will (ie intestate) estate is rather straightforward. However, there are times when a decedent dies without any unknown family members and the issue of ascertaining the heirs of the estate can quickly get cumbersome. To provide an example of how the Surrogate’s Court functions in New York State, we take the case of Jill, a public school teacher who never took the opportunity to make a Will. Jill, who was single her entire life, died at the age of 85, having lived in a one bedroom co-op apartment in Brooklyn, New York for the last 50 years. There is no indication that Jill had any family. Jill never knew her father, and her mother had died when she was in college. To the best of her knowledge, she had no siblings. The question quickly becomes as follows: if Jill had no family (ie heirs), what will become of her $250,000 co-op apartment and $1 million in retirement funds?
Since there is no named executor in the will because there is no will, a court has to appoint an administrator of Jill’s estate. Being that Jill has no presently known family member who is willing to serve as the administrator of her estate, the Surrogate’s Court will appoint a Public Administrator to administer her assets. The Public Administrator will start by inventorying Jill’s assets and paying any debts of her estate, such as the funeral bill, individual and estate taxes, and any creditor claims. When debts of the estate are satisfied and assets of the estate are accounted for in their entirety, the Public Administrator is required to provide an accounting to any prospective heirs. In order to determine any heirs, the Public Administrator will attempt to locate heirs of Jill through the Attorney General’s Office and his own investigation. To gather a better understanding of what exactly a Public Administrator’s job entails check out their website, http://www.nycountypa.com.
In Jill’s case, the Public Administrator conducts his own investigation by speaking to Jill’s co-workers and neighbors, looking at Jill’s birth certificate that he finds in her bedroom drawer, reviewing the deed to Jill’s co-op apartment, examining census and social security records, and obtaining the death certificate of Jill’s mother. The Public Administrator’s search reveals no records indicating that Jill was ever married or had any children, whether biologically or adopted. The Public Administrator encounters trouble gathering any information about Jill’s father.
Being that the distributees of Jill’s intestate estate are presently unidentified, the Public Administrator will file an application with the Surrogate’s Court asking for permission to deposit the assets of Jill’s estate into a fund with the Commissioner of Finance for the City of New York, which is also known as the Comptroller of the State of New York for Counties located outside of New York City. The Public Administrator will then place a publication in the local newspaper, requesting that any potential heirs of Jill appear in the accounting proceeding. If no heirs of Jill appear at the proceeding, the funds of the estate are tendered to the Commissioner of Finance and are recoverable by persons who can prove that he or she is the rightful heir of Jill. If, during the accounting proceeding, persons do appear claiming to be the heirs of Jill, the court will conduct a kinship hearing. The individuals alleging to be Jill’s heirs and claiming a right to her assets will have to prove to the Court that they shared a common ancestor with Jill and to the best of their knowledge and due diligence, there are no lost or undetermined distributees of Jill’s intestate estate with a greater or equivalent right to inherit her estate.
In demonstrating their kinship to the deceased, heirs making a claim to the estate typically put forth the following documents as proof: birth certificates, marriage records, death certificates, administration and probate proceedings, eulogies and obituaries, morgue reports, separation and divorce judgments, social security records, and other information available to the public that would be helpful in establishing kinship. In addition to the documented evidence, the alleged heirs can provide the Court with the testimony of witnesses. In Jill’s matter, a neighbor who lived down the hall from her, might testify that she only saw the pizza delivery man enter Jill’s apartment in the ten years that she had lived in the building, and that her and Jill spoke a few times in the elevator and Jill had indicated that she regretted that she never got married and did not have children. Evidence of Jill’s unsigned birth certificate might be presented showing that her father was unknown.
According to New York’s intestacy statute, the first individuals to claim a right to Jill’s estate, is a surviving spouse and the children of the deceased. After an in-depth search reveals no evidence of Jill ever being married or having any children, collectively with the testimony of Jill’s neighbor, the question of whether there is a surviving spouse or children is ruled in the negative. The next order of heirs to take under the intestacy statute are the parents of Jill. Being that there is a death certificate of Jill’s mother proving her death, and Jill’s father has failed to appear at the proceeding, the court will presume that Jill’s parents did not survive her.
As briefly demonstrated, estate matters can quickly develop into very complex and controversial scenarios. It is crucial to equip yourself with an estate lawyer in New York to help guide you through volatile situations where financial security and family ties are at stake. Our law firm has the experience in the representation of heirs, executors, administrators, trustees, and grantors in any and all aspects of estate administration and probate proceedings.
Kamilla Mishiyeva, Esq., is the founder of Mishiyeva Law, PLLC., a law firm specializing in estate matters including trust and will drafting, probate and administration, and general estate planning. The firm is located on 85 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004. You can contact the firm today and set up a free consultation. Our phone number is (646) 535-1667.