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.