People often use the “cousin” terms loosely, as if they were interchangeable. For social purposes they are interchangeable, but legally they are decidedly NOT. This distinction arises in two particular situations:
- When a person dies without a Will (which is called “intestate”) and the closest relatives are cousins.
- When a Will is being offered for probate and the Court has to decide who is entitled to notice.
For cousins to be in play, the decedent would have to die without spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces/nephews. Aunts/uncles (if any) would inherit, along with first cousins, but aunts/uncles inherit ahead of their own children in these scenarios.
When discussing cousin inheritance rights, it is crucial to define the terms:
First cousin – The intestacy statute doesn’t use the word “cousin”. It refers to first cousins as “children of common grandparents”. Here’s the statute (EPTL sec 4-1.1) https://codes.findlaw.com/ny/estates-powers-and-trusts-law/ept-sect-4-1-1.html The first hundred or so times I read this it seemed confusing, but if you think about it, how else could you define a cousin? True first cousins share a common grandparent. That’s it. Most people can think of clear examples in their own family…”Mom’s brother had a son, he is your first cousin.”
First cousin once removed – What if your cousin has previously died and he had a daughter. She is not a first cousin. A child of a first cousin is called a “first cousin once removed” because they are a generation below. If you want a brain-bending experience please read paragraph 7 from the link above. The paragraph refers to “great grandchildren of grandparents”, and as I’ve thought about this over the years, it DOES define it better than any other way it could be defined. These folks only have inheritance rights in limited situations. The only time first cousins once removed can inherit is if there is nobody at the level of first cousin on either side of the decedent’s family. This wasn’t totally clear in the statute, but was resolved in an interesting case called “Matter of Shumavon” https://casetext.com/case/matter-of-shumavon The bottom line that case is “first cousins on one side of the tree inherit ahead of first cousins once removed on both sides of the tree”. Believe it or not, this actually comes up fairly often!
Second cousin – At the end of the first cousins section of the statute (paragraph 6) it says: “….issue of grandparents shall not include issue more remote than grandchildren of such grandparents”. So, a sometimes startling fact: “second cousins to a decedent do NOT have inheritance rights in New York.” Second cousins, which most of us have and know (and call them cousins) share a common great-grandparent. The reason we often know them fairly well is that their parent and ours were first cousins (because THEY shared a common grandparent). But, legally such people are second cousins to each other and do NOT inherit under intestacy.
One more thing about cousin cases. When first cousins might be inheriting, we have to look at the decedent’s maternal and paternal first cousins. Most people have cousins on both their mother’s and father’s side, and by law the inheritance is 50/50 to each side. So, if there are two paternal cousins and ten maternal cousins, 50% is shared by the two paternals and 50% is shared by the ten maternals.
Very often the people inheriting as cousins under intestacy were not close (in the personal sense) to the decedent. Or, one cousin was actually close and thirty others weren’t but they are forced to share equally. This illustrates something that occurs to me at some point of every cousins case, which is “This person should have made a Will”!!
One last quick note about “cousin cases”. Although cousins can inherit, they generally cannot serve as the fiduciary. This is generally done by the Public Administrator. When the Public Administrator handles a cousin case, they refer to the cousins as “alleged first cousins” and the cousins have to PROVE kinship.
These are interesting cases with all kinds of special rules. I am always available to evaluate a “cousin case” for attorneys who have received an inquiry or for cousins who may have such a case.