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New York Inheritance Disputes

Sometimes even the most tight-knit, loving families have disagreements. One event that can cause heated disagreements within a family is the death of a loved one and the settling of that person's estate. An inheritance dispute often involves a beneficiary or heir being unhappy about the portion of an estate that he or she received. Such dissatisfaction can lead to several types of estate disputes including a challenge over how the will was executed, allegations over how the executor has managed the estate, as well as accusations of improprieties with respect to how the will was made such as undue influence. Inheritance disputes and will contests can be quite complex, involving difficult issues related to proof coupled with tricky family dynamics. If you are involved in an inheritance dispute, it is important to be represented by an experienced New York inheritance dispute lawyer at the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates who will review the facts of the disagreement and work closely with you to come to the best possible resolution given the issues involved in the dispute.

Parties to an inheritance dispute

While many people may have reason to be upset by the provisions of a will, only those who are interested parties have the legal right to pursue a dispute in the New York Surrogate's Court. An interested party is usually either a beneficiary or an heir. A beneficiary is anyone who is named in a will, while an heir is someone who would inherit a decedent's property in the absence of a will. Heirs are typically close family members such as the spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings and parents. In addition, interested parties include creditors, claimants, fiduciaries, or anyone who would have inherited under a previous or later will. If, for example, your father passed away and left you a much smaller bequest then he left your sister, because you are interested party, you could initiate estate litigation. On the other hand, as an experienced New York inheritance dispute lawyer would explain, if you are a friend of the decedent and merely “hoped” to receive a testamentary gift, you would not have standing to object to the will.

Improper Execution

If an interested party is upset by the amount of property he (or she) received under a will, he could challenge the will based on how it was executed. If a will is not executed according to the requirements of New York law the Surrogate's Court judge may decline to admit it to probate. Under New York law a will must be signed at the end by the person making the will, known as the testator. NY EPTL § 3-2.1(a). If the testator is physically unable to sign the will the law allows another person to help the testator sign of sign for the testator. Even though the testator may be physically unable to sign the will, the testator must be mentally sound when another person aids in signing the will. Another requirement is that the signing of the will must be witnessed by at least two people. NY EPTL § 3-2.1. At some time during the execution ceremony the testator must declare that the document signed is indeed his or her will. NY EPTL § 3-2.1(a). If the court is satisfied that the will is valid, the Surrogate's Court judge will admit it to probate. If the court is convinced that there were problems associated with the execution of the will, the court may decline to admit it to probate. As a result the decedent's estate will be distributed according to New York's laws of intestacy. This may be the result sought by the person who initiated the inheritance dispute. For instance, suppose that according to a will a son was disinherited. If the court finds that the will was not properly executed and therefore invalid, then the son would be entitled to a significant share the estate based on the laws of intestacy.

One way for a testator to help ensure that his or her will is not invalidated based on improper execution is to request that the witnesses execute affidavits recounting the circumstances surrounding the signing of the will. Doing so makes the will self-proving. If a will is self-proving a Surrogate's Court judge will not need to interview the witnesses and review other evidence before concluding that the will is valid.

Lack of testamentary capacity

New York law also requires that the testator have testamentary capacity. This means that the testator must be at least 18 years old and must be of "sound mind and memory." NY EPTL § 3-1.1. Being of sound mind and memory means that you have the mental capacity to appreciate what it means for you make a will. Generally the test for the mental requirement of testamentary capacity is that you have to understand the nature and extent of your property, understand who your heirs are, and understand how you want to dispose of your property.

An unhappy beneficiary or heir may argue lack of testamentary capacity to try to get the will invalidated. This is a common strategy in cases where the testator suffered from a medical condition affecting memory or cognitive ability such as Alzheimer's or a traumatic brain injury. However, as an experienced New York inheritance dispute lawyer will explain, Surrogate's Court judges have consistently concluded that having a medical condition that may affect your memory or mental capacity does not mean that you cannot make a will. As long as you executed your will during a time of mental clarity you had testamentary capacity. It does not matter what your mental state was at the time of your death or at any other time.

Undue Influence

Undue influence occurs when another person selfishly manipulates the testator into executing a will that the testator would not have otherwise executed. For example, Adam, who is 85 years old and frail, hires a nurse, Audrey, to help him with his medical care as well as activities of everyday living. Adam has an estate worth $800,000. In 2005 Adam executed a will that left each of his 4 children $150,000, and each of his 8 grandchildren $25,000. Over the 2 years that Audrey worked for Adam, Adam saw less and less of his family members. When they tried to visit him, Audrey told them that he was sleeping. Finally, in 2014 Adam passed away. The will that was filed with the Surrogate's Court was executed in 2013. To the surprise of Adam's family the will provided that Audrey receive $680,000 and the remaining $120,000 was divided equally among his 4 children and 8 grandchildren.

With the help of a skilled inheritance dispute attorney in New York, Adam's children and grandchildren initiated an inheritance dispute arguing that Audrey exerted undue influence over Adam and as a result convinced him to practically disinherit his relatives and leave her the bulk of the estate. Based on the facts of this case a court may very well find undue influence and invalidate the entire will, or the portion of the will that provided for Audrey.

Fiduciary litigation

Estate litigation can arise over a dispute over how fiduciaries have administered the estate. A fiduciary is an individual who has the authority to act in the best interests of another person. In the case of a will or a trust, fiduciaries include the executor or trustee. In addition, professionals hired to help perform services for the estate such as attorneys, accountants, business advisors, and bankers are also fiduciaries.

If a fiduciary mismanages estate assets, for example, the value of the estate could take a significant financial hit. This would mean that the amount of property available to distribute to beneficiaries would be reduced. For example, the executor of Adam's estate, Harold, sells Adam's house to a friend for $400,000. However, similar homes have sold for $700,000- $1,000,000. Adam's beneficiaries could sue the executor arguing that he breached his fiduciary duty by selling the property for significantly less than market value. Should the court agree with the beneficiaries, the court may require Harold to pay Adam's estate $300,000-$600,000, the amount of money the estate lost due to Harold's breach.

Contact the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates

Regardless of the basis for the estate dispute, negotiating a resolution is an involved process requiring a review of detailed evidence and applying the appropriate law. Because of the complexities involved in estate litigation it is important to have an attorney who is experienced represent you. The seasoned inheritance dispute attorneys serving New York at the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates are experienced in working closely with executors, beneficiaries, heirs, fiduciaries and other parties in resolving inheritance disputes and other estate litigation. We will help make the process as painless as possible under the circumstances. Contact us at 1-800-NY-NY-LAW (1-800-696-9529) to schedule a free, no obligation consultation regarding your case. We represent clients in the following locations: Nassau County, Suffolk County, Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Westchester County.

Client Reviews
★★★★★
Mr. Bilkis handled both my father and mother's estate issues through very difficult times he was compassionate kind and understanding. In fact the whole firm showed great empathy. Despite the emotional hard time we were having that quickly and efficiently handle all the matters that were necessary to get us the result we desired. Can't recommend them enough. B.B.
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