Articles Posted in Blended Families Estate Planning

As the new year opens it is a good time to review all of your legal estate planning decisions and tweak any previous documents that you think need to be modified. This requires us to get back to the basics of estate planning . For those scenarios that deal with what happens to you in an emergency situation, you have an advanced medical directive, with some level of specificity but not too much. The term advanced medical directive is an umbrella term that encompasses several types of legally significant documents. One of them is a living will. Your living will tells the medical professionals who are treating you, what your wishes are in advance for any number of medical situations.




Underneath the umbrella term of advanced medical directive, there is also the health care proxy. The health care proxy allows for you to appoint a trusted person to act as a decision maker for those scenarios that are not contemplated in your living will and if you are unable to make any medical decisions by yourself. Medical conditions change, different doctors have varying opinions as to the best course of treatment or even over the correct diagnosis. Having a health care proxy will have someone stand in for you to make the best decision under the circumstances. You can limit the authority that you give to the person or only permit the health care proxy go into effect after certain conditions or triggers occur.




Underneath the umbrella term of advanced medical directive is another document of legal significance, the do not resuscitate order. For some a do not resuscitate order may be fitting for religious or other reasons. There is nothing legally inappropriate for a person to include their do not resuscitate order in their living will or in a separate document. Whether it is separate, from the living will or both is of no legal consequence.




The general power of attorney may or may not be a good fit for you depending on any number of factors. It does act as a safety net for any and all situations, such as to empower your health care proxy agent to negotiate with the health insurance company in the event they denied some service, such as medical transport or a physical rehabilitation. It may allow for the person to redirect certain public benefits into different accounts, depending on your needs. It may also allow for someone to care of the young children on an emergency basis if you are incapacitated and they have medical or other needs themselves that need to be taken care of. The general power of attorney helps to fill all cracks in the documents that you created, to allow for truly wrap around services for you in any emergency situation.


It is good practice to forward and review all of your documents that encompass your advanced medical directive (living will, health care proxy and if any do not resuscitate) with your primary care physician. Of course all doctors are busy professionals so make sure that you inform your doctor’s office receptionist that you are making an appointment to review your advance medical directive. It is always best to listen to the advice of any professional that you engage with, obviously including your primary care physician. That does not mean that you have to do everything that they suggest as it may not be fitting for you personally. But it should always be food for thought. Hospitals often ask about a do not resuscitate order when a person is admitted as well any advanced medical directives. The same holds true for your attorney. It is best to review all of your documents with your attorney and make any recommended changes that you are comfortable with.


        A residential lease in New York City or any desirable locale can provide many benefits.  Some people wait years to get into a rent stabilized apartment.  There is even a Seinfeld episode where Elaine quips that some people scan the obituaries to see if someone in a rent stabilized apartment has passed away.  It is a common occurrence for many people to live decades and raise generations of families in their rent controlled rental unit.  Many cities have their own laws dealing with how to inherit these leases.  New York Real Property Actions and Proceedings §236 law deals permits an estate to inherit the lease of a deceased person and New York Estate Powers and Trusts Laws §13-1.1(a)(1) also holds that a lease is an asset of an estate.  In addition, many local laws housing and regulations also mandate how and when a lease may be inherited.  New York City ended its Rent Control laws in 1971, yet still has approximately 38,000 rental units listed under the old Rent Control laws, as once the lease is under the Rent Control law it remains until it is no longer.  Going forward New York leases are generally covered by Rent Stabilization laws, also covered by the same laws dealing with succession of a residential lease.  Rental units under the rent stabilization laws are the most common type of residential lease.  These leases will remain for so time due to the right to succeed these leases by other family members or even friends.  Most particularly, New York Code, Rules and Regulations §2532.5(b) allows for family members to succeed the lease.  Landlords have been known to fight like the devil to regain possession of these rentals, sometimes offering cold hard cash, from $40,000 on the low end to $17,000,000 on the high end.


To succeed the lease the new renter must show that he/she lived with or cohabitated with the deceased tenant for at least two years, or, in the case of a senior citizen or if they are disabled, they only need to show that they cohabitated with the deceased tenant for a year.  The term cohabit is critical, as the new tenant must show that he/she actually lived with the deceased tenant.  If the deceased tenant lived elsewhere, there is no cohabitation.  Personal possessions, cancelled rent checks from the deceased tenant’s checking account, failure to change address for the deceased tenant’s driver’s license and maintaining a bedroom are all evidence in the event that the landlord decides to challenge the new tenant for possession of the rental unit.


        In addition to the cohabitation requirement, New York Code, Rules and Regulations §2520.6(o) requires for the succeeding party of a rent controlled or rent stabilized rental unit have a family relationship or anyone that can show an emotional and financial commitment and interdependence with the deceased tenant.  The regulation itself indicates that no one factor is determinative and lists eight different factors that a Court can take into account to determine if indeed there was an emotional and financial commitment.


There are many reason why people decide to adopt an adult, but there is essentially only one legal effect: the adopted child is legally treated as if they were a biological child.  Most people would be right to think that the primary legal result is a creation of inheritance rights in the newly adopted adult.  There are, however, more rights attendant to being a child of some.  Some veterans have the right to have their children attend a military academy without concern for the state quota or be eligible for certain scholarships as well as other benefits.  A parent can add a child to their health insurance the age of 26, even if they are married.  


Perhaps the most common reason for adoption is simply love.  Step parents sometimes raise kids as if they are their own and love them just the same.  Perhaps the child reached adulthood and expressed a desire to be legally recognized as the child of the only mother or father that the young adult has known.  The same can be said of a long term foster parent to the foster child.  Other times the “parent” wants to recognize a long time caretaker or loyal employee.  A person may only leaves money to their grandchildren, in which the child of the grandparent can adopt, so as to insure that their adopted adult can legally be considered grandchildren, as what happened to the heir to the founder of IBM.  The reasons can be endless.  


Compared to other states, New York has little restriction on who can adopt and practically no restriction on who can be adopted.  The only legal impediment to adoption in New York is if the person to be adopted is over 14, they can object.  For estate planning purposes, adoption is superior to leaving money in a will, as the adopted parties’ inheritance rights are less likely to be cut out, as to do so would require a Court to overturn an adoption.  It is more likely for a Court to invalidate a will than overturn an adoption.  The adoption also ends any legal relationship that may exist as a result of biology.  This obviously applies to the biological parent-child relationship, but what of an adult child vis-a-vis minor child sibling relationship?  New York state carves out this exception in some limited circumstances, although the issue of the right to sibling visits following an adult adoption is unaddressed in New York in a broader context.  


The Florida case of Goodman v. Goodman, 126 So. 3d 310 (Fla. DCA 2013), is a good example of some of the issues that arise as a result of a failure to plan.  The most critical thing that you have to do with any adoption is notice.  In the Goodman case, the notice at issue was that the adoptive party stood to inherit under the adopting parties family.  Other heirs to that estate stood to lose at least a portion due to the new adoptive parties inclusion.  The Florida appeals Court found that the adopting parties’ family had a right to notice.  While the circumstances of the Goodman case are specific to Florida, all potential heirs should always be put on notice, so as to avoid any future potential issues.

Whatever your decision, it will require experienced legal counsel to guide your decision every step of the way.  

A JDSupra post from last month offers a helpful reminder of the changing legal landscape for New York same sex couples who are married.

As virtually everyone knows, in late June the U.S. Supreme Court declared the main portion of the federal law known as the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) unconstitutional. The crux of the particular case, Windsor v. United States, related to the estate tax. Windsor, a New York resident, was forced to pay over $350,000 in estate taxes following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer. The couple’s marriage was legally recognized in New York, but the federal government treated the pair as strangers.

Estate Planning Options
With the Supreme Courts ruling, issued by Justice Kennedy, the federal government is now required to treat all couples the same who are properly married under state law. This opens up a large number of new estate planning tools for married same sex couples in New York.

Most obviously that includes claiming the marital deduction on gift and estate taxes. As pointed out in the article, this deduction applies both to assets that pass directly (in a will) and those transferred via a trust. In these cases a trust known as a QTIP is common. QTIP refers to “Qualified Terminable Interest Property” trust and is often used to allow a surviving partner to benefit from asset before they eventually pass to another, like an adult child.

In addition, same sex couples can now take advantage of each other’s exemption amounts when making gifts and transfers. For example, the partners can “split” gifts to third parties and double the annual tax-free exclusion amount for federal purposes. Similarly, married same sex couples can now elect portability. This is a legal tool that allows the spouse of one who is deceased to essentially borrow the “unused” exemption amount of the spouse who has passed away. In essence, it is another way that partners can jointly pass on assets to loved ones with as small a tax burden as possible.

As we have previously pointed out, other legal details, like the increased Social Security benefits and the filing of joint tax returns, are also open to same sex couples married in New York.

Critically, the article makes the unique point that as a result of the unconstitutional ruling, section 3 of DOMA is deemed to have been void from the outset. In other words, those adversely affected by the law in the recent past (usually three years), may be able to file amended tax returns and recoup some of their overpaid tax.

Following the Windsor decision, it is critical that all New York same sex couple visit with an estate planning attorney to update their current documents or have new plans created to account for the new legal options open to them.

The more complex a family arrangement, the more tailored estate plan is likely needed. For local residents this often takes the form of second or third marriages, with children and different step-relatives. The “default” rules may not be good at accounting for these various relationships and balancing the unique needs of wishes of each family member. Yet, even in the most extreme cases, an estate planning attorney is able to craft the best possible arrangements, provided participants are open and honest about their situation.

But, things can get particularly sticky when there are secret relationships or other family dynamics that are not incorporated into a plan.

Mistress & Children Fight for Inheritance
This concern was vividly demonstrated in bizarre and tragic case that is making national headlines. A millionaire businessman, Ravi Kumra, was murdered in late November. A group of men apparently broke into his home, bound the man, and ransacked the home for valuables. Kumra eventually died from asphyxiation as a result of being gagged.

Kumra divorced his wife in 2010. However, his ex-wife still lived with him at the time of the attack–she too was bound and beaten, but survived.

In the aftermath of the murder, much has come out about Kumra unique lifestyle, eventually involving a feud over his inheritance.

Most notably, Kumra apparently was intimately involved with many different prostitutes who often stayed in the home (where the ex-wife still lived). In fact, the group of attackers (who were arrested) were allegedly connected to some of those prostitutes.

Initially Kumra wealth was going to be split between a group of family members, including his two adult daughters from his previous marriage. However, one of the former prostitutes eventually came forward and claimed that she was entitled to a family inheritance because she gave birth to two children (now 9 and 7 years old) who were fathered by Kumra. She sought the inheritance on their behalf as living descendents of the slain millionaire.

The matter was brought to court where, according to a Weekly Times story, a judge recently agreed that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that the children were indeed fathered by Kumra. As a result, the judge awarded the woman and her children $1,800 per child per month for the allowance. According to the mother, Kumra had the children with her intentionally and, since her pregnancy until his death, paid her several thousands dollars every month to be a stay-at-home mother.

This is obviously a unique situation. However, it is a testament to the complexity that can arise in any number of cases when various living arrangements are not handled as part of established estate planning efforts.

It is often argued that estate planning is necessary to prevent family feuding in the aftermath of a passing. Disagreements about “who gets what,” how to handle funeral issues, and other concerns are known to tear friends and family apart. Being explicit about one’s wishes ahead of time–and letting relatives know early on–is the ideal way to avoid surprises and present the best opportunity for disputes to be squelched.

But proper planning does more than prevent feuding after a passing; it can also prevent it before one’s death. That is because disagreements about caring for aging relatives is often a bone of contention. Arguments about who is going to make decisions on their behalf, what type of long-term care will be pursued, and similar concerns can cause ruined relationships just as much as any inheritance dispute. All of this makes it imperative for local community members to visit with an NY estate planning lawyer early on to ensure legal documentation is in place so that there is no uncertainty about how any of these issues are to be decided. Considering the prevalence of cognitive brain issues (i.e. Alzheimer’s and dementia), prudent planning requires these matters be handled as soon as possible.

Celebrity Example
To get an idea of how these sorts of disputes play out, one need look no further than newspaper headlines discussing the situation around legendary actress and international celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor. As reported by My Desert News, a court recently ruled in a case caregiving dispute that originally pitted the actress’s husband against her daughter.

The 96-year old Gabor’s health has apparently been in decline for some time, and she requires close support to manage her affairs. Last year her daughter allegedly learned that the actress’s home was in foreclosure as a result of missed mortgage payments. This led her to question the care her mother was receiving from her husband. Eventually a out-of-court agreement was reached between the parties that resulted in the husband (Frederic von Anhalt) being appointed conservator of the estate.

In court papers released this week, it seems that the temporary conservatorship was extended by a court. This is notwithstanding the fact that von Anhalt a six figure loan against his wife’s real estate holdings (valued at over $10 million).

The Gabor case is a reminder that it is critical to delineate who one wants to make decisions in the case of incapacity. Leaving the question open is often an invitation to dispute. That is especially true in blended families or where second or third marriages and adult children are involved.

The more assets that are at stake following a passing, the higher the risk that others might pursue all available means to get a piece of the pie–even if it completely contravenes the original wishes of the former owner. Estate planning fills the gap by closing as many opportunities for subsequent legal challenge as possible. Sadly, in many cases, even when some planning is done ahead of time, outsiders may attempt to find any loophole possible to upset the original plan.

That seems to be what happened with the estate of music legend James Brown. Brown died over four years ago from heart failure, but the final resolution of his assets remains in limbo with a potentially long future ahead. That is because the Huffington Post is now reporting that the state’s supreme court recently rejected a compromise that was two years earlier between various parties.

The Backstory

Not long before his death Brown created a will that seemed to give the vast majority of his wealth to charity, mostly focusing of the educational goals of needy children. However, after his passing, his purported widow (the couple was not married) and various heirs challenged the will. The feuding escalated quickly, even reaching the point of forcing the singer’s body to remain unburied for two months while disagreements were sorted out.

Over the next two years accusations about trustee mismanagement, altered wishes, and undue influence were hashed out in court. Eventually, in a somewhat unprecedented step, the state’s Attorney General stepped in and brokered a deal. Per the terms of the deal, 50% of the estate would go to charity, 25% to the purported widow, and the remaining 25% to other heirs.

Not So Fast

That old agreement was reached in 2009. But shortly after a fewer of the former trustees–they had been replaced by a lower court earlier–filed suit challenging the agreement. That legal challenge eventually made its way up to the highest court in the state. In a new ruling that high court threw out the AG-brokered compromise. The main problem, noted the opinion, was that the compromise seemed to give short-shrift to Brown’s actual wishes which were to give virtually everything to charity. The judges noted that it should not be that easy to slash charitable bequests via legal challenge. So now the matter will be sent back to a lower court to figure out the next steps.

One of many lessons to be gleaned from this sad case: a simple will is often not enough to prevent others from attacking your wishes, causing legal controversy, and delaying a final resolution for years.

One common excuse for putting off basic estate planning is the assumption that others–spouse, children, siblings, close friends–already know exactly what you want, and so there is little need to go through the legal hoops to solidify it. Sadly, in the aftermath of a passing, there is no way to know exactly what those in control of a situation might do unless there is legal backing to it. That obviously applies with distribution of property, but it also applies to more ceremonial aspects to a passing, like funeral and burial wishes.

Don’t Leave it to Chance
For many, their faith dictates how they chose to have their passing honored (or not honored). From deciding what to do with remains or where to be buried, it is critical that desires be set forth clearly. It is a mistake to underestimate the significance of these details or the in-fighting that may bubble up where there is disagreement about how to handle these matters.

To illustrate the significance of burial decisions, one need look no further than the morning newspapers where disagreement is brewing over what to do with the remains of former English King, Richard III. In a scene that seemed pulled from pop fiction, the remains of RIchard III–immortalized as villain by Shakespeare–were recently found buried beneath a parking lot.

The unceremonious burial took place over 500 years ago and no one alive today has any personal connection to the former king. However, that has not stopped a feud from brewing over where the monarch’s final resting place should actually be, as recently highlighted in a Times story. Initially, the town where the bones were found–Leicester–took steps to bury the king in the city’s cathedral.

However, the nearby city of York is objecting. Representatives for the town argue that York was Richard’s home town (he was once known as Richard of York), and that his connection to the city is far more important than where his bones were found. Historians note that he was buried in Liecester only because he died in a battle nearby.

Others are arguing that, wherever he be laid to rest, it should be in a cathedral used by Catholics. Catholicism was the national faith during Richard’s time. However, not long after his passing Henry VIII broke ranks and created the Church of England. Many cathedrals formerly used by Catholics were converted to the Anglican faith.Consequently, some observers are arguing that it would be inappropriate to interr the former king in a cathedral used by a faith that was, presumably, not his own.

It remains unclear how the matter will ultimately be resolved. Both the town of Liecester and York have asked the royal family for support, and each are circulated petitions to influence the decision. Even then, it is unclear exactly where the bones will lie, even after the city is chosen.

Obviously, the remains of a former king of England half who died half a millenia ago presents a somewhat unique case. But the same emotions that are tied up in this battle for burial rights applies to similar decisions today. It is critical to contact a NY estate planning attorney to ensure your wishes are not up for dispute.

A Reuters story late last week suggested that while estate planning feuds of the famous usually involve millions, the principle issues are the same as those faced by all local residents. Every case must be evaluated individually, but the same main issues are found again and again. That is why our New York estate planning lawyers urge residents to visit with experienced professionals when making preparations because they have likely seen similar issues in the past and can help anticipate problems that might come up down the road. As this latest story explained “anyone thinking about wealth transfer faces the same issues: dysfunctional families, potentially unequal positions in the family business, perhaps multiple marriages with kids from each.” This applies whether one has $50,000 or $50 million.

For example, second marriages often create planning problems. When crafting an estate plan, one must balance the needs of the second spouse with the children of the first marriage. If one doesn’t do it, as the author notes, “you’re basically buying a litigation case.” For example, the longest estate litigation case of the last century was that of Anna Nicole Smith. She was a second wife of a billionaire investor. The children from the man’s first marriage engaged in a prolonged battle to ensure that Ms. Smith did not receive any substantial portion of the man’s wealth. The case was still not resolved with Ms. Smith herself passed away.

Family businesses also present common issues for those in all income brackets. Much family wealth is wrapped up in a business. Often some of the children participate in the business while others do not. This often creates significant estate planning issues regarding who gets what share of the business. One of the most well-known examples of this is that of the Koch family in New York. The patriarch had created a fortune after developing a new cracking method in oil refinement. However, upon his death the man’s four sons engaged in a prolonged legal dispute over control of the business. As the article notes, “there are a lot of ticking time bombs in family businesses that creates litigation.”

Many judges involved in these sorts of cases have explained that they believe estate litigation is on the rise. The fact patterns of the cases are consistent: second marriage issues, family business struggles, and similar situations. Those involved also report that the size of the estate is often of no consequence. Estate disputes are not only the concern of millionaires.

See Our Related Blog Posts:

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Most local residents will nod in agreement when one explains the importance of conducting New York estate planning as soon as possible. It is easy for most to understand the value of planning an inheritance, saving on taxes, and preparing for alternative decision makers. Yet, all estate planning lawyers know that there is a difference between recognizing the importance of a task and actually taking the time to get it done. Psychologists have found that when it comes to making the leap from knowing that a task should be completed to actually doing it, personal examples are usually the most effective motivators. It is one thing to learn about the value of planning, it is another to hear about a specific case of proper planning that helped an actual person. In fact, experts have also found that even more effective than stories of positive benefits are stories of plans gone awry. The stick is often more persuasive than the carrot.

That is where the estate planning misadventures of the rich and famous can be useful. Unfortunately, recent history is replete with stories of many well-known figures who did not take care of their affairs properly (or at all) before their passing. This week the SM Mirror ran down a quick list of some of the more well-known cases of celebrity estate planning blunders. A few included examples:

Jimi Hendrix
The great young guitarist passed away tragically at the age of twenty seven. As is common for those around that age, Mr. Hendrix did not have a will. Possession of his estate was disputed for decades, with Mr. Hendrix’s father officially taking ownership twenty years after the death. Upon the father’s passing, everything went to the father’s daughter from a second marriage. The father had adopted the daughter who was his second wife’s child from her former marriage. That means that Mr. Hendrix’s nearly $80 million fortune (which continues to grow) is owned by someone he never knew. This is the case even though there remain many family members who are still alive and were much closer companions to Mr. Hendrix during his life.

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando supposedly explained to his long-time housekeeper that she would be able to keep the home in which they lived following his death. She had been living there for years beforehand. However, the promise was never committed to writing. Oral promises are easily contested and often invalid. Upon Mr. Brando’s death the housekeeper lost her bid for the home and received only a small settlement.

Anna Nicole Smith
The model and TV reality star died without updating a will she had written six years earlier. The old will left everything to her son Daniel. However, Daniel had died several months before Ms. Smith. Therefore, the probate court will likely have to apply default rules to determine how her assets are distributed. However, the case remained unresolved five years after her death, because Ms. Smith herself was involved in a fifteen year battle for a share in the assets of her billionaire former husband after his own will was contested.

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