Articles Posted in Estate Administration

On June 24, 2015 a trial Court in California invalidated a California law as unconstitutional, which created a default surrogate decision maker when that individual is mentally incapacitated and does not have a family member, or anyone else for that matter, to make key decisions for them.  The law and the issues addressed are not limited to California.  Even though by definition, the law deals with individuals with no proxy decision maker, that does not mean someone did not exist in the past or could not step up to become one.  Proxy decision makers pass away themselves, they move or simply just fade away and no longer attend to their responsibilities.  New York law deals with these issues in a rather collaborative way.  In 2010, New York enacted the New York Family Health Care Decisions Act, which creates a decision ladder for medical professionals who need to know with whom to check with for certain critical decisions.  It was designed to avoid the parade of horribles that the California law dealt with.  Certainly, no one wants a loved one or relative, even a distant relative, to have to rely on these provisions; they are used as a last resort.


In the absence of a health care proxy, The New York Family Health Care Decisions Act begins to shape decisions, for all intents and purposes, at the time of the determination of incapacity.  

  • First, there is an in house decision making process by which specially licensed individuals may decide if a patient lacks the capacity to decide certain health care decisions;
  • Second, if there is a determination that the patient lacks capacity, the patient and the prospective surrogate;
  • If the patient objects to the determination, or the choice of surrogate, the patient’s decision controls;
  • Unless there is a legal determination of incapacity by a Court.

Each step outlined above has further breakdowns in procedures to help avoid the matter escalating to the next step.  For example, step two notes that if there is a determination of incapacity, the first person who may act is a court appointed guardian, if there is one, next is a spouse, an adult child, a parent, a sibling, even a close friend.  The surrogate decision maker’s consent is not necessary if the patient already made a decision, even if only made orally and not memorialized in writing.  The decision must be in line with the moral and religious beliefs of the patient.  


The New York Family Health Care Decisions Act by definition does not cover those who have a valid health care agent via a health care proxy, as well as other circumstances, such as when a guardian is appointed due to mental or cognitive limitations.  The issue of allowing essentially a stranger, albeit a well intentioned and competent one, can be avoided by creating a well crafted health care proxy with multiple contingencies built into it.  Health care proxies can allow for a second health care agent in the event that the first health care agent is not available. A third and fourth even can be named in the event that the the first two or three are not available.  

There is no better way to deal with these issues than by consulting with an elder law attorney who can create a road map to avoid these issues.   

Almost six months after the untimely suicide of comedian Robin Williams, his wife and children are embroiled in a contentious legal battle over his estate. Court documents filed in California during December and January pit his last widow, Susan Schneider Williams, against his children from his two previous marriages: Zak, Zelda, and Cody Williams in a battle over money and property in his estate. The family is not only arguing over the apportionment of wealth that Robin Williams acquired over four decades of acting, but they are also fighting over personal effects and belongings of the late actor.

Sides of the Case

In the documents filed with the courts, both sides want to hold on to the majority of Robin Williams’ memorabilia that he accumulated over his lifetime. This includes his bicycles, toys, fossils, and other personal reminders of him as a husband and father. The papers show a schism between his last wife, who he married in 2011, and his children that were a highly visible part of his life.

The attorneys for Mrs. Williams claim that days after his death, property was unilaterally moved from their home by his children. In addition, when she sought legal representation for her issues, certain home-related services like newspaper delivery were canceled. Her attorney claims that since she lost “her husband through a shocking and emotionally charged event,” she has not been “given time to grieve her loss free from the frenetic efforts to interfere with her domestic tranquility.”

On the other side, Robin Williams’ children responded to Mrs. Williams in their own motion, stating that they are heartbroken that the woman that he was married to for less than three years has “acted against his wishes by challenging the plans he so carefully made for his estate.” The children claim that her attempts add insult to injury and that it is a premature attempt to block what their father wanted them to receive.

Robin Williams’ Estate Plan

The actor’s will was filed after his death, and it left his estate in its entirety to a trust, with its beneficiaries including his three children. The trust was updated after he married his third wife, but Mrs. Williams also signed a prenuptial agreement before their wedding. Under the terms of the updated trust, Mrs. Williams was to receive her own separate trust called the “Susan Trust” which included their home in Tiburon as well as most of the personal property within it. She was also supposed to be given enough cash and property to cover the costs of the residence for her lifetime.

Robin Williams’ children are claiming that Mrs. Williams is arguing for more money before the trust is even funded, and they cited it as “an illustration of greed that appears to be driving the petitioner’s actions.” The trust specified that all of Robin Williams’ “clothing, jewelry, personal photos taken prior to his marriage to Susan,” his “memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry,” as well as additional property he kept at a second home in Napa were to be given to his children.

However, Mrs. Williams is claiming that she should be entitled to his “personal collections of knickknacks and other items that are not associated with his famous persona.” These knickknacks include his extensive collection of graphic novels, action figures, theater masks, movie posters and other collections that were precious to him. His children have argued that they are entitled to these pieces of their father, as well.

It has been said that life is a journey, not a destination. So it makes sense that in our last days, on our final journey, we should strive to have a good one–a bon voyage.

While talking about end of life issues–particularly our own–can sometimes be uncomfortable, the best way to make sure that your end of life wishes are honored is to lay them out in writing and make sure that your loved ones are aware of them. Don’t miss the opportunity to have a bon voyage–take the opportunity to set out your end of life wishes and take control of your journey.

Unfinished Life Matters
Sometimes so much focus is placed on the medical and legal aspect of dying that the personal aspects get brushed aside. However, the reality is that it is much easier to have a bon voyage if you are happy or at least satisfied when you depart. This involves taking care of loose ends and putting things right where necessary. Personal matters to consider include–

**Saying things you need to say to loved ones, friends, and others, such as “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” “I love you.” “Goodbye.”

**Determining whether you may need psychological, emotional, spiritual care, counseling, or other support.

**Writing a personal legacy or story, telling any life lessons or outlining your hopes and dream, as well as leaving any helpful advice, for loved ones.

**Creating a “bucket list,” outlining any things you would still like to accomplish or setting out any goals of for your remaining medical care.

Funeral Wishes
Funeral arrangements are very personal and options vary widely–from in-ground burial, mausoleum burial, cremation, as well as other possibilities. Some planning and logistical questions include–

**Do I want to donate my organs for transplant or donate my body to science?

**Which funeral home/mortuary do I want used?

**What are my feelings regarding embalming, burial, cremation, casket, burial location?

**Who should be notified of my passing?

**Who will write my obituary and what should it say if you are not writing it yourself?

**What do you envision for a funeral–a church service, a party or dinner, a memorial service?

**Will you pre-pay your funeral expenses or where will funds be held?

**Do you want to specify a charity or other cause “in lieu of flowers”?

Medical And Legal End Of Life Paperwork
A complete estate plan typically involves the documents identified above as well as a pour-over will, a revocable living trust (RLT) or an irrevocable Medicaid asset protection trust (MAPT), power of attorney for finance, and deeds and memoranda regarding personal property. In particular, questions related to medical and/or legal arrangements include–

**Do you have a will and possibly a trust? When is the last time you looked at these documents and thought about their provisions? Do the provisions reflect your current wishes and desires for distribution of your personal and real property, as well as your other assets?

**Do you have a Living Will? Does it state your wishes regarding the type and extent of medical treatment you want in the event that you can no longer speak for yourself?

**Have you made your feelings known about matters such as “Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)” orders or your feelings on CPR? What are your feelings on palliative care and natural death? What are your feelings regarding breathing tubes (intubation) and feeding tubes? A Living Will allows you to record your wishes regarding organ donation, pain relief, funeral, and other advance planning matters. It is an important source of guidance for your health care agent.

**Have you executed a Durable Power of Attorney For Healthcare? Have you also selected a Health Care Proxy? Have you specified an alternative proxy in case your first choice is unable or later unwilling to act as proxy? A health care proxy is a designated decision-maker who will make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions for yourself. Your health care proxy should be someone with a strong personality; someone who will fight for you and your wishes.

Thinking of end of life matters can be uncomfortable and challenging, but most things are easier when we have some control over them. Expressing your wishes and making affirmative decisions regarding end of life matters will hopefully allow you to have a peaceful departure and a bon voyage.

While many New York residents familiar with and have an existing will in place in the event of their death, most people do not realize that estate planning documents extend far beyond a last will and testament. The world of estate planning documents includes not only living wills and advanced medical directives, but also trusts. Trusts offer several benefits associated with them, and come in two forms: revocable and irrevocable.

Benefits of Having a Trust
Trusts can not only provide for loved ones upon death, but they can provide for the person who created the trust during their lifetime. This is important in cases where the creator has a health issue, a mental disability or incapacitation, and other scenarios. Trusts can be administered without the need to involve a probate court, and can therefore protect privacy as to the contents of the trust. Trusts also serve as protection of assets for trust beneficiaries, and offer a wide variety of options in creating them to suit different needs.

Revocable Trusts
Revocable trusts are a type of trust that can be changed at any time. The creator of the trust could simply modify the terms of the trust through an amendment. Or, if they want to revoke the trust in its entirety, they can do that as well. In revocable trusts, the assets contained within the trust are considered the creator’s assets and will be treated as such for tax purposes and if creditors exist.

Irrevocable Trusts
As one may expect from its name, an irrevocable trust is not able to be changed once it is signed by the creator of the trust. These trusts are often complex and require a special degree of care in drafting them in order to meet the creator’s needs and desires for his or her estate. It is imperative to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when setting up an irrevocable trust in order to ensure your estate is properly protected, and any concerns you have about being unable to change the terms of such a trust are addressed and handled appropriately.

That being said, irrevocable trusts have a number of specific benefits associated with them. Often times, estate taxes are significantly lessened or even eliminated through the creation of an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts also offer a high degree of asset protection for the creator of the trust and the trust’s beneficiaries. Both of these advantages are possible with irrevocable trusts because once the assets are placed into an irrevocable trust, the creator gives up his or her control and ownership of the trust assets.

NY Estate Planning Attorney
If you are interested in securing estate planning documents or are interested in further discussing the benefits of trusts and how they apply to you, the experienced estate planning attorneys can help you.

Family feuding is all too common, and finances are often at the root. One argument often made in legal cases involves these matters is that an adult child or other close relative is abusing a position of trust and confidence with a parent to take advantage of them financially. Proving such an abuse is the challenge of an undue influence lawsuit.

Undue influence is usually defined the use of confidence for the purpose of taking unfair advantage of one with a weakness of mind (or other vulnerability). In other words, undue influence is about pressure. The question is when does pressure become excessive, and thereby amount to undue influence. In a legal case where undue influence is an issue, a court may consider a number of factors:

1. Unusual or inappropriate time of discussion of the transaction;
2. Unusual location of the completion of the transaction;
3. Insistence that the transaction be finished at once;
4. Repeated warning of the adverse consequences of delay;
5. Involving multiple individuals to apply persuasive pressure;
6. Absence of third-party advisors.

To illustrate, it is useful to consider a few real world examples:

In 2011, the children of actor Tony Curtis claimed that their father was the victim of undue influence. Curtis, redid his Will and changed other aspects of his estate plan a few months before he died from heart failure. As a result, Curtis’s five children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis, were left with nothing. The Will stated that Curtis intentionally disinherited his children, yet no reason was given. Shocked and deeply suspicious, daughter Kelly Lee Curtis sued, accusing Tony’s widow Jill or others of convincing Tony to change his Trust through undue influence, fraud, or duress.

In 2009, comedian Pauly Shore filed a lawsuit against his brother, Peter, alleging the use of undue influence against their 79-year old mother, Mitzi. Mitzi suffers from neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease. Prior to her decline in health, Pauly, Peter, and their mother were joint directors of The Comedy Store, a famous Hollywood comedy club. When Peter subsequently took to managing the club’s finances, Pauly requested that Peter turn over about three years worth of tax returns and financial documents. After Peter refused Pauly’s request and instead fired Pauly from the club’s Board of Directors. Pauly brought an undue influence lawsuit, claiming that Peter orchestrated firing Pauly from the Board by taking advantage of their mother’s frail health.

Undue influence doesn’t just disturb the families of the rich and famous. Too often it surfaces in the financial matters of everyday people, whether in wills and trusts, or the operation of a family-owned business. When it does, it’s time to speak with an experienced attorney about your legal rights so you can protect the vulnerable from the unscrupulous.

New York residents are urged to craft an estate plan so that their assets are passed on per their own wishes–and not based on arbitrary state laws. Unless you explicitly make your desires known, then all decisions will be left up to others. However, there are actually a few rare instances when the law explicitly prohibits you from making certain planning choices. These situations are not common, but it is important to be aware of them in case they conflict with your plans
The most notable rule of that nature relates to disinheriting a spouse. In most cases, the law automatically allows a spouse to inherit certain assets if he or she chooses–regardless of the specific estate planning provisions.

Marriage is deemed a special legal relationship that is voluntarily entered into under the law. As a result, state statutes include default rules that protect the relationship. This is somewhat different from other close relationships–like parent-child. A resident can always end a marriage to legally break the spousal relationship. That is why it is usually possible to disinherit a child but not a spouse.

NY Spousal Right of Election Law
There are countless different scenarios where one may want to remain married to an individual but not leave them assets as an inheritance. This can be a strategic choice and not necessarily motivated by animus. An estate planning attorney can explain if a strategy that does not leave assets to a spouse makes sense.

However, it is important to understand that there is a NY law that allows a spouse who is disinherited to voluntarily choose to collect various assets–even if they were designated for others. Specifically, the spouse can choose to take either ⅓ of the deceased “net estate” or, alternatively, $50,000. Under the law, the net estate may include many different assets. Beyond those indicated in a will, it can include joint accounts, living trust assets, and some assets where a beneficiary is designated. In addition, that net estate may also include certain gifts given within the last year. In other words, giving away asset to others as a means to deplete an estate is not a viable alternative.

This spousal right of election does not happen automatically. The disinherited spouse has to affirmatively exercise their right to take advantage of the provisions. There are various time limits to doing so. In addition, the right may be curtailed in some instances based on a pre- or postnuptial agreement.

For help creating a tailored elder law estate plan to fit your needs, please contact our NY attorneys today .

Most legal matters have built-in complexities. Anyone who has purchased a home, for example, can appreciate the mountain of paperwork will dense legalese that must be filled out . Things are only made more challenging where there are significant emotions tied up in the dealings–like when the home was owned by a loved one who just passed away.

One common example of a process that many New York residents face with a mix of intense emotions and legal complexities is an estate sale.

No two families are the same. Some wish to go through with a sale as soon as possible to settle the matter and move on. Others take more time to process the situation before handling matters like an estate sale. In all cases, however, it is critical to proceed with an understanding of the legal requirements.

The Basics
Most importantly, one must understand what can be sold, when, and by whom. It is not as simple as adult children automatically being able to do whatever they want with their parents possessions. Answers to these questions will hinge on what estate planning was done beforehand. Use of tools like a living trust, for example, would likely streamline the process. On the other hand, those without any planning at all will have to wait for court resolution before anything can be done.

In general, all property can be labeled either as a probate asset or non-probate asset. Probate assets are those that must be collected and distributed through the court. When a will is used to pass on assets, then virtually all property in the decedent’s name (individual who passed away) will be required to go through probate. Alternatively, non-probate assets pass to another automatically, or at least outside of the court’s purview. This may include property held jointly with a right of survivorship, certain insurance benefits, or assets held in trust.

Those assets that do not need to pass through probate can be dealt with almost immediately. There will be a new owner or trustee who can do whatever they wish with the items, including sell them in an estate sale. Alternatively, probate assets cannot be immediately handled. Instead, the family must go to court and either present the will or have the court deal with the resolution per state intestacy laws. The court will appoint a “fiduciary” whose job it is to collect the assets and distribute them as necessary. This may include arranging a sale of a home. In more complex cases, like when the home is part of a cooperative, the same formal requirements must be met, including approval by a Cooperative Board.

Estate planning attorneys appreciate that on top of all of these legal details are very real emotional pressures. When it comes to an estate sale it is common for disputes to arise between grieving family members regarding what to sell and when. The stress and confusion is far more likely the less preparation and professional support is available. Feel free to contact our NY estate planning professionals for guidance on streamlining this process for your family.

One of the biggest misconceptions about settling an estate is that all of the loose ends will be handled within weeks or months of the passing. In reality, it often takes years or more before all of the details are finalized. In cases of sizeable wealth, unique assets, or complex administration arrangements, the estate details may linger for decades.

Consider a story in last week’s New York Post regarding the estate of former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. Thunders was only thirty eight years old when he died in 1991. Yet, even though the death occurred more than 23 years ago, there is a legal estate planning battle brewing over control of his assets.

Thunders Estate Fight
Thunders had little to his name when he died–with an estate valued only at $4,000. Not having a Will, the singer’s assets were set to go to his estranged wife, their two children, and a third child from a second mother from Sweden. The singer’s sister was named Executor of the estate and she worked on its administration.

Over the years, the sister was quite savvy with the estate management, taking advantage of some re-birth in popularity of New York Dolls songs to generate significant income for the estate. As part of her role as administrator of the estate, the sister made twice yearly payments to the singer’s children and wife. These payments lasted for decades until the sister’s death in 2009.

It was at that point that another estate battle was put into motion. Originally, the singer’s Swedish daughter from outside of his marriage was set to take control of the estate. Yet, the daughter, now 26 years old, could not afford the sizeable bond payment needed to oversee the fund. These bond payments are often required by the court to ensure that the administrator does not abuse their discretion and control of the funds.

Yet, even though the daughter could not afford the bond, no one else was named administrator. The estate funds–around $160,000–have set unused without payment to any of the children. All of this means that no one is around to take advantage of the continued interest in the New York Dolls legacy to capitalize on royalty and licensing funds.

To make matters worse, Thunder’s other two children with his wife recently filed a suit seeking to bar their half-sister from ever taking control of the estate. Both sides are set for a court date in January but are hoping to reach a settlement beforehand.

The “Golden Years” – that peaceful time of life after retirement; a time to watch the grandchildren grow up, to take that long-awaited vacation and to….get married? Statistics indicate that both men and women are getting married later in life, and although the rate of marriage and remarriage significantly declines with age, an estimated 500,000 Americans 65 and older get married (or remarried) every year.

While marriage at any age raises a number of legal and financial concerns, individuals 65 and older who marry later in life tend to bring significantly more assets to a marriage than individuals who marry earlier in life. In addition, those entering into in these later-life marriages are more likely to have adult children, and even grandchildren. For these reasons, it is critical that those who rediscover love during their “Golden Years” be mindful that the failure of these types of marriages can create complex estate planning legal issues.

A unique problem for later-life marriages involves potential disputes between a surviving spouse and the adult children from a previous marriage. Most states require that a portion of the deceased spouse’s estate pass to the surviving spouse. This portion is known as the elective share. In New York, that share is equal to 1/3 of the deceased spouse‘s estate. New York, like most states, does not allow the disinheriting of a spouse to his elective share unless the spouse to be disinherited legally consents. Consequently, spouses who want to determine the terms of possession of their assets upon their death should consider creating a prenuptial agreement, one made by the spouses prior to marriage that concerns the ownership of their respective assets in the event of divorce. Without a prenuptial agreement, a “Golden Years” divorce has the potential to lead to a disastrous, and often disheartening, outcome.

Take the hypothetical later-life marriage of John and Nancy. John took the steps to create a new will once he married Nancy, generously leaving her $75,000 and the rest of his million dollar estate in equal shares to his three daughters from his previous marriage. John and Nancy did not, however, create a prenuptial agreement. Upon John’s death, Nancy could, under New York law, claim her elective share of John’s estate if she so desired, leaving her with far more than the $75,000 designated by the will…and leaving his three daughters with far less. One can only imagine the nightmare this could create where the relationship between Nancy and John’s three daughters was already contentious. A well-drafted prenuptial agreement between John and Nancy would have allowed each of them to structure his estate as he desired, thereby avoiding a distribution that may have John rolling in his grave.

Indeed, marriage at any age can be exciting and fulfilling, yet newlyweds in their “Golden Years” must be sure not to let their love blind them to the critical role a prenuptial agreement can play in later-life marriages where one or both spouses has children and grandchildren and/or substantial assets that were acquired before the marriage.

The New York estate feud that dominated headlines for months may finally be nearing an end. Mysterious New York heiress Huguette Clark died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 104. For several decades before her death, Clark lived inside a hospital room–even though she was healthy enough to live elsewhere. Her several mansions remained empty for years. In fact, a documentary film based on Clark’s life and death is currently in creation–several books have already been published.

Because of her unique lifestyle and secretive existence, many were intensely interested in her estate plan–curious as to how her $300 million fortune would be passed on. So began a complex back-and-forth between dozens of different parties who apparently had a stake in the estate–including Clark’s doctor, lawyer, nurse, the hospital where she stayed, her distant relative, named charities, and more.

Clark’s estate planning was relatively bare considering the size of the assets. Essentially two wills were produced. The two wills were both created in 2005. The terms of those two wills could not be more different. The first will gave most of her assets to her distant relatives. The second will cut the family out entirely and instead sprinkled money to her doctor, nurse, lawyer, accountant, and arts-related charities.

It was not long before the different parties at stake were locked in a legal battles. As a substantive matter, the main issues was which of the two wills should be followed. Last week, we explained how negotiations had broken down and the matter was set for trial.

Apparent Settlement
But on the eve of jury selection in the case, the New York Post is reporting that a settlement may have been reached. Per the terms of the possible agreement, a group of 20 relatives will split $34.5 million from that estate. Another major beneficiary would be the new foundation created and set up at Clark’s California estate. The Corcoran Gallery will receive $10 million, the hospital where she lived would get $1 million, and a loyal doctor-friend would receive $100,000.

Interestingly, not everyone involved with walk away with some piece of the estate. For example, her attorney and accountant will not receive anything. In addition, Clark’s nurse will not receive the nearly $7 million she would have per the terms of the second will.

The next step is for the settlement to be put before the judge. So long as he approves it, the matter may finally be settled.

Contact Information