Articles Posted in Probate


It is a fact of life that we can never plan for the worse case scenario and there is always risk in anything you do. The law recognizes this special risk, at least in part, in wrongful death lawsuits. In order for a wrongful death action to proceed, a party must apply to the Surrogate’s Court to act as the personal representative of the estate. In essence, that person must stand in the shoes of the deceased for purposes of the wrongful death action. Any and all settlement or award monies must pass through the probated estate under the jurisdiction of the Surrogate’s Court. This can present special issues if you already have a will, but no trust or other legal device to bypass the probate process and your estate is close to the estate tax exemption threshold. The federal estate tax exemption is currently set at $5.45 million dollars.

Anything above the Federal exemption is taxed at a heavy 40 percent. New York’s estate tax exemptions are changing and will continue to change until 2019 when it will match the Federal government’s exemption amounts. After 2019 there is an added problem with New York’s estate tax exemption; specifically, if the entirety of the estate exceeds the exemption amount by five percent, the entirety of the exemption is forfeited and the entire estate is taxed. That means that if your estate is say, for example, 120 percent of the exemption amount, the entirety of your estate will be taxed under New York rates. At the same time, 20 percent of your estate will be taxed at 40 percent. It is important to note the difference between the exemption amount and the taxable rate.

        The death of a loved one is an especially traumatic event. Lives can be upended and surviving family members and friends can be left feeling lost and confused about how to carry on. This is especially true when the death occurs suddenly or under tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, the law does not provide grief-stricken family and friends much time to mourn their loss before important work must be done. This important work involves admitting the deceased’s estate to probate and then administering that estate.

        In New York and elsewhere, an individual who dies with a will or similar document in place is said to die testate. If a person does not have such a document in place, the person dies intestate.

  •         Dying Testate: If the deceased left a will, the first step of administering the estate involves probating the will, or proving the will’s validity. Usually this involves simply introducing the will into the appropriate court. Once the will has been probated, the executor or administrator named in the will is tasked with carrying out the wishes of the deceased as expressed in the will, settling any lawful debts the deceased must pay, and providing an accounting or report to the court showing that the deceased’s assets were dispersed according to the terms of the will.

In 2010, John Armstrong killed his eighty year old mother, Joan Armstrong, by bashing her head in with a brick and then stabbing her body repeatedly to drain the body of blood. However, despite this gruesome crime his attorney is arguing that he should still get his part of his mother’s inheritance. He is one of five children of Ms. Armstrong, who enjoyed success as an artist before her death and included all of her children in her will. His attorney is challenging the state’s slayer rule based on mental illness and incompetence.

No one disputes that Mr. Armstrong killed his mother in 2010. On August 7, the Ocean Springs Police Department responded to a call from Ms. Armstrong friend who said that when he knocked on her door, Ms. Armstrong showed up at the door covered in blood. Ms. Armstrong was found on her back in the apartment with a large open wound to her forehead. John Armstrong told police that he killed his mother because he didn’t want her to leave and go to the pool in the complex. In his mind, he thought she was abandoning him by going to the pool.

A mental exam in 2012 found John “seriously and persistently mentally ill,” and the recommendation of the psychiatrist was that “it is not clear that, even with treatment with antipsychotic medications, Mr. Armstrong can be restored to competence to proceed legally.”

This case centered on a dispute over the administration of a family trust as well as the interpretation of trust documents. Despite appealing the ruling, the defendant in the case violated court orders and, and the plaintiff moved to dismiss the appeal based on the rules within the disentitlement doctrine.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Adam J. Blumberg v. Gloria M. Minthorne, Gloria and Ralph Minthorne created the Minthorne Family Living Trust in 2008, with Gloria named as the sole trustee. Both parties had children and assets from previous marriages. In regards to the division and distribution of the trust property, one clause stated that the trustee was allowed to transfer the entire estate to a survivor’s trust after the death of one spouse. Another clause left “all the rest, residue, and remainder of the trust estate, including the remainder one-half interest” in an apartment building to Ralph’s children and grandchildren.

When a person dies, someone else must step up and close the estate. If that responsibility falls to you, as an executor you must identify all of the estate’s assets, pay off creditors, and distribute what is left to the heirs. However, an added responsibility as the executor is that you must also file all of the tax paperwork for the estate, as well. There are four major tax considerations that you must complete as the executor of an estate.

Filing the Final 1040

The first thing that you must do as an executor is file the deceased’s personal tax return for the year that the person died. The standard 1040 form covers from January 1 of that year until the date of death. If there is a surviving spouse, you can fill out the 1040 as a joint return and is filed as though the deceased lived until the year’s end. A final joint 1040 includes the decedent’s income and deductions up until the time of death in addition to the surviving spouse’s income and deductions for the entire year.

Last week we discussed the recently unearthed will of former Sopranos star James Gandolfini. The document was filed with a Manhattan court late last month, with the actor’s assets being left to a wide range of people including his two children, wife, sisters, and several friends. Those earlier reports noted that Gandolfini’s assets including life insurance, real estate in Italy, and more. All told he allegedly had more than $70 million in assets.

With fortunes of that size, estate taxes are obviously an immediate concern. There are both federal and state taxes that apply to inheritances. The rates for each are different and they take effect at different income levels. Federal estate taxes apply to non-exempt assets over $5.25 million with a top rate of 40%. Alternatively, New York’s separate tax kicks in at assets over $1 million with rates between 5% and 16%.

Considering there are two levels of taxation and rates that are not trivial, it is critical to account for these potential taxes in an estate plans. Attorneys working on these issues for local residents must be intimately aware of all legal options to guard against the largest tax bills.

Estate planning attorneys work with families before a death to ensure the legal pieces are all in place for a smooth transition of assets free of conflict, tax savings, and the carrying out of one’s specific wishes. Sadly, many New York families will lose a loved one without having conducted any planning; they are thrown into a confusing administrative situation in the midst of grief. In fact, even when one has a plan in place, there may be confusion about exactly what to do in the aftermath of a passing.

For that reason it is worthwhile to discuss the “nuts and bolts” issues following a passing. A Huffington Post article recently touched on the basic question: “What to Do When a Loved One Dies.”

For starters, immediately upon discovering the passing, the authorities must be notified. This task may fall to a family member depending on the situation. Is the death occurs at the hospital or nursing home, employees there may handle it. However, if one dies at home, the first call should be 911. Don’t forget, timing matters in this regard. For example, if the individual is an organ donor, then waiting too long may make the organs unable to be used. Of course, having conversations with family members ahead of time about organ donation wishes is imperative.

When someone passes away, the basic principles of settling the estate seem straightforward: collect assets, pay off debts, and distribute what is remaining per the deceased’s wishes. While that cursory sketch appears easy enough, in practice, dealing with these matters can take years, have a significant cost, and result in prolonged disagreement, destroyed relationships, and even legal battles.

As always, a high-profile celebrity example offers a helpful look at how it plays out in the real world.

The Las Vegas Sun recently reported on the latest in the prolonged battle related to famed pop star Michael Jackson’s estate. The singer died over four year ago, but from most reports the matter is nowhere near being resolved. For one there, there is still pending litigation related to the billion-dollar tour production Jackson was set to complete just before his passing.

This week Forbes published an article that outlines the basics of how to fund an estate plan for spouses. The story is a helpful reiteration of many of the basic issues that are common for all New York couples thinking about their future and trying to create security no matter what the future holds.

Helpfully, the story explains how estate planning is not the creation of a stack of legal documents that are signed and then stored until needed. Instead, the process is far more comprehensive and involves examination of all of one’s assets, wishes, legacy interests, elder care goals, and more.

As a general matter, on the estate planning side, one of the main goals is avoiding probate at all costs. That means that something like a last will and testament is inefficient. Instead, for most New York couples it is best to create a series of revocable living trusts which are far superior, allowing property to be protected and passed to others without the need for court intervention. After the trust is created spouses transfer property directly into the trust.

Most lists of “common estate planning mistakes” include the frequent error of failure to properly update beneficiary designations. Yet, even that mistake is deceiving, because updating is just one thing to consider with these designations. Even if the names are evaluated on a consistent basis, it is still important to ensure that the person named as the beneficiary fits in with other aspects of an overall estate plan.

Fox Business recently published a story listing ten different ways that life insurance beneficiary designation decisions are made in error. The story is worth browsing to get a feel for some common issues.

For example, it is critical to name someone who can actually receive the funds. Parents may name their minor child as the beneficiary, but the insurance company will not dispense funds directly to a child. Without a trust or similar arrangements, then this designation will cause problems. A guardian must be appointed, leading to costly and timely court proceedings being necessary.

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