Sometimes family members feud.

Sometimes it’s irreparable (in the eyes of the participants…..I would always beg to differ, but that’s another story).

Sometimes thoughts of money and mortality will lead a person to take action.

So they make a will….with one main purpose…..to make sure that “X” doesn’t get anything.  Sometimes there are related purposes, to make sure that “X” gets the message, or knows what (s)he missed out on, but the theme is often the same…….”X” gets nothing.

I’ve done a lot of wills like this. In these situations, you want to minimize the possibility of a will contest in the future. Sometimes the will-maker’s main problem with “X” is “he’s the kind of person who would contest a will”. The solution is something called an “in terrorem clause”.  Sounds pretty cool…..here’s how it works. You leave “X” enough of a bequest to make it interesting, and add a clause that says effectively “If after my death “X” takes ANY steps to contest this will, he will get ZERO”. People who are so inclined generally love this suggestion, but some real thought has to go into it. To make it effective, you actually have to leave “X” something in the Will.  Clients invariably say “So leave him $10″….but that’s not the way to do it, because “X” would have nothing to lose. A better approach would be to leave “X” a bequest of say, $10,000 or $25,000, in a million dollar estate, and let him have to deal with it.

Sometimes people don’t want to do an in terrorem clause, they simply want to leave “X” nothing, and minimize “X”‘s chances in a will contest.  If someone is being left out, I always suggest that the Will specifically refer to them. It can be as simple as “I intentionally make no provision in this Will for “X”, and this is not due to an oversight”. Some people go further and say something more…..”I leave “X” nothing because he…..whatever.” Another phrase clients have requested, more than once, is “I leave nothing to “X”, for reasons which are well known to him.” I didn’t like it, but the clients wanted it and I did it. I always wondered if “X” really knew the reasons.

If there are potential issues regarding the will-makers competency, additional practical steps must also be taken to ensure the Will will stand. These would include using the best witnesses possible, keeping the language of the will as clear as possible, keeping detailed notes, and making sure it is documented that the attorney/draftsman met with the will-maker ALONE.

There are legal provisions for video-taping a Will, but for many reasons I have never done it. Imagine having the “out-takes” being subject to discovery in a will contest?

Why all the fuss about possible will contests? Consider this…..attorneys can (and frequently do) take will contests on a contingency fee.  I have done this, IF I think I have a good shot at knocking the Will out.  There are often high stakes, where the will beneficiaries may get nothing (or much less) if the Will gets tossed.  Guess which ones I pass on?  The one’s where good steps were taken to thwart a contest.

With this in mind, and if the possibility of a will contest is being considered during the will drafting process, steps can and should be taken to protect the Testator’s wishes.

Who REALLY ought to make a Will?

If you are considering whether you need to or not, the answer to this question starts with a question…..

“Who would inherit from you if you did not make a Will?”

When I interview someone who is considering making a Will, the first issue I explore is THAT.  There is a good reason I start with “who would inherit if you do not make a Will?”   It lets me know who the “players” are. Not only that, later on, the people on my little family tree are the people who must be notified when I try to probate the will.

People are sometimes surprised when I start off questioning them about their closest family members, especially when what they want me to know is “I don’t want those people in my Will”.  This is fine with me, but I still have to know who they are. This is because anyone who would inherit if there were no will is considered an “interested party” when the Will is being probated. Legally, we call these people “distributees” or people who are “adversely affected” by the Will. They are the only people who will have standing to contest a Will.  If it’s a close relation being excluded, say a child or a sibling, I always ask WHY they are being left out, and I make a written note of it in my file.

When somebody is left out and squawks after the person dies, having a note about it in the drafting attorneys file is VERY important. When I represent someone in a potential will contest, one thing I hate to see is a note in the drafting attorneys file explaining WHY the person is being left out.

I am amazed at how often people do not consider the question “Who would inherit from me if I did not make a Will?”  I frequently see this is Estates where there is no Will, and distant relatives are inheriting. Whenever I see this, often with meaningful money involved, I always think “Could they have intended THIS?”  Did they not have anyone, a friend, or a charity, that was more deserving than the distant relatives who are now inheriting?  I’ve seen cousins inherit who never even met the decedent!

Think this never happens?

I GET THESE CASES ALL THE TIME!!!

Truth be told, I frequently represent distant relatives in the inheriting position, when the inheritance is a major score for them. I like these cases, but at some point it always occurs to me (and it sometimes occurs to people who actually knew the decedent) “they should have made a Will”.

Very often in those cases people tell me “the decedent talked about making a Will”, or “he told me he was going to make a Will”, but for some reason they never did. I think there are several reasons for this….

Procrastination – a vague intent to do it in the future, and just not getting with it.
Superstition – a fear that doing it will cause illness or death.
Cheapness – not wanting to pay for a Will.
Delusions of immortality – more people have this than one might think.
Monumental inconsiderateness – totally not caring what happens to others after you go.

Strangely, Wills are most often made by people in a tight nuclear family….say a married couple with children. There are good reasons for such people to make Wills too, but the fact is, the inheritance aspect is not so different making a Will than if they didn’t.  (To be clear, those folks should make Wills for other reasons)

People who don’t ask the question “Who would inherit from me if I did not make a Will?” are often some combo of cheap, procrastinating, superstitious, monumentally inconsiderate, and/or delusional (vis a vis their mortality) individuals. Business-wise, I don’t mind this all that much, these end up being my largest fee cases, but…..it sure is puzzling.

Maybe they “just can’t deal with it”, and on many levels I understand and respect this. I also know that if you are the person someone SHOULD be putting in their Will, it is a difficult subject to bring up. I’ve had people ask me what to do in this situation. Not only is there is no easy answer, but every situation is unique.

I will say this…..if the person has talked about it, and you think they WANT to do it, HELP THEM get it done. But, as we say in poker, don’t overplay your hand.

Yeah, this gets complicated. But not nearly as complicated as when procrastination wins out, and the person who should make a Will doesn’t.

 

In the last post I set forth a few “little things” that affect the probate process.  These things impact the complexity, timing and expense that may be involved.  Here are a few to consider:

1. A Will that is not attorney prepared and/or supervised.  Putting aside possible lack of clarity with a non-attorney will, there are legal presumptions that apply to Wills that will later be presented for probate.  The big one is that when a Will signing is supervised by an attorney, the legal presumption is that the execution (the signing part of it) was properly done. This can be overcome, but the burden is on the potential objectants. It is a heavy burden.

On the flip side, if the Will signing was not attorney supervised, the presumption of due execution does not apply, and the burden is on the Will proponents to show proper execution. This is a heavy (and dangerous) burden. It means the witnesses have to testify that the necessary formalities took place (that the Testator declared or indicated the document was his will, asked them to be witnesses, that they saw the Testator sign, etc).  Nobody can actually remember the details of what happened, and very often big money is riding on some witnesses testifying correctly.

Contrast this with an attorney supervised Will signing.  Now the objectants have a tough burden to overcome, since all the attorney has to remember about the signing ceremony is what their customary ceremony is, that he/she always follows it, and there was nothing in this Will to indicate any deviation.

Sometimes when people are in Court with home-made or LegalZoom wills, where possible objectants were cut out, they really regret not using an attorney to do the Will. They now have a burden they would not have had if they had used an attorney.

To be clear on this….the above refers to the actual Will execution. Other grounds for objection (lack of capacity, undue influence etc) could still be pursued. That being said, it is really dumb to face “due execution” issues, when they could have been easily avoided.

2. Two witnesses and a witness Affidavit. The law in New York is TWO witnesses. Not one.  Also, the witnesses can (and SHOULD) sign a separate witness affidavit right after they witness the Will. This essentially says they were there, they signed, and everything that was supposed to be done, was done. It saves everyone from having to locate the witnesses years later. It also saves the problems that arise when it turns out later the witnesses have died, or are incompetent, or you can’t locate them.

This witness affidavit stuff applies mostly to attorney drawn wills but surprisingly, sometimes attorneys don’t do this step. Very bad. Very inconsiderate to the people trying to probate the Will later.

3. Sometimes a person has a right to inherit, but before their inheritance rights are determined, they die.  We call these persons “post-deceased”.  A post-deceased person does not lose their rights, their estate has whatever rights they would have had.  In Surrogate’s Court, an “estate within an Estate” is quite common. Sometimes, before we can proceed with an Estate we have to establish an Estate for the post-deceased person who has an interest in our Estate.  Sometimes people wait years before setting up an Estate, usually because there was no pressing need to do it.  Then, when they need to do it (usually because they want to sell a house that is still in the name of a deceased person), we have to do multiple Estates within Estates.

The probate and estate world is full of these “little things” that keep life interesting.  Many of these potential problems can be avoided with skillful planning and/or professional preparation and execution of a Will.  In reality, very often proper legal work has not happened, and we play the hand we are dealt.  These problems can all be resolved, but they often take some persistence and time.

When we “probate” a Will, we are having the Court recognize it as official and proper. The Court then grants “Letters Testamentary” to the Executor, giving the appointed person authority to act.

When looking at a probate proceeding, a few basic elements will determine how simple or complicated the proceeding is going to be.

Here are 3 important ones:

1. Does the Executor have the ORIGINAL Will. This is very important, and quite frequently clients come for an appointment and all they have is a copy. Copies can be probated, but it is much harder and more expensive.  When we don’t have the original, serious efforts must be made to locate the original. Some places I suggest looking are:

– The decedent’s papers and records. Clients usually say they looked. I suggest they look again.

– Safe deposit box.  If the decedent has one, sometime the Will is in there. Getting it out after the person has died may take some legal work, but if the Will might be there you we have to look.

– With the drafting attorney.  I don’t generally hold original Wills, but many attorneys do.  It’s kind of an old school hostage thing, as it increases their chance of getting the probate work.  Anyway, sometimes we have to extract the Will from the drafting attorneys, and sometimes issues arise.  What if they died?  Moved?  Were disbarred?  Lost it?  (I’ve encountered all of these!)

– On file with the Court. Many lawyers don’t know a Will can be filed with the Court while a person is alive. I’ve done this quite a few times, usually when I am concerned that an angry relative might get access to the decedent’s Will and destroy it.

– In the possession of another family member.  It doesn’t hurt to ask.

2. Did the witnesses execute a “witness affidavit”?  A will does not have to be notarized.  In New York the legal requirement is that it be “signed in front of two witnesses”.  However, best practice for will execution is to have the Will signed in front of two witnesses and then have the witnesses sign an Affidavit (which is notarized), attesting that everything was done that needed to be done.  When this Affidavit is with the Will, we don’t have to locate and contact the witnesses.  When the Will doesn’t have the witness affidavit, and you want to probate, you have to find the witnesses and get them to sign an Affidavit.  Another potential “royal pain”. What if their signature is illegible so you can’t identify them?  What if they died?  Moved? Don’t remember anything?   I’ve encountered all of these too.  Generally the problems can be solved, but it’s much more work!

3. Can we identify and locate the “distributees”.  These are the people who would inherit under intestacy (ie – if there were no will).  In a New York probate proceeding you have to get jurisdiction (legal lingo for “you have to show the Court they received notice”) over them, as they are the only people with standing to contest the Will. It’s difficult to probate when we don’t know who they are and/or where they are.   Also, sometimes getting jurisdiction over these people presents other problems.  They could be dead, missing, mentally incompetent, incarcerated, questionable paternity, etc.   When analyzing a new probate, an initial important issue is always “what will be involved in getting jurisdiction?”

Clients often ask “How much will it cost to probate a Will?”  I am always up front and willing to give a quote, but not without first getting a handle on the  important “little things”.

To understand things that would add complexity to probating a Will, it is useful to look at what an ideal (and easy) probate looks like.  The complicated situations occur when one or more of these simplifying factors are missing, or when some troubling variation is in play.

In an ideal situation, we have the following:

– An attorney prepared and supervised Will.

– Two witnesses have signed the Will, and also signed a Witness Affidavit.

– We have an original Will, not a photocopy.

– There are no corrections, deletions or alterations on the Will.

– The staples have not been removed.

– We know who the distributees (people who would inherit if there were no will) are, and we know where they are.  Even better, we know they will sign a Waiver agreeing to the probate.

– We have a Will that names an Executor and that person is alive, willing to serve, and doesn’t have anything about them that would prevent them from serving.

– The Will doesn’t do anything that would tick off an interested party.

– The terms of the Will are clear and easy to understand.

– The person’s non-probate assets (i.e. – accounts with beneficiaries, life insurance policies or jointly held real estate) are distributed consistently with the apparent intention of the Will.

– There isn’t a spouse being cut out in the Will (thus triggering a right of election).

– The death certificate lists an address in the County you think it should.

– There aren’t big creditor claims, or Medicaid liens, or open taxes, or years of unfiled taxes.

– We know what the assets are and where they are….and nobody has plundered them with a power of attorney.

– The person did their Will a few years ago (as opposed to a few days, or hours, before they died)

Contrary to what many people think, most Wills fit the profile above.  Things need to be done, and they can be easily done.

Of course, there are many situations where one or more of the above complexities are in play.  They can all be addressed, but they take some know-how, some time, and some expense.

These issues are precisely the reason why the question “How much do you charge to probate a Will?” cannot be answered until AFTER determining the existence, and extent, of the possible complexities.

The word “probate” is often tossed around as something to be avoided.  As if the failure to avoid it were a mark of stupidity, or symbolized a lack of care or planning.

On some level if a person does extensive planning, and has ALL their assets with named beneficiaries, or if a person creates a trust (AND takes the additional step of transferring ALL their assets to the trust), probate can be avoided.

But what is actually being avoided?  Is avoiding it worth the effort?

What is probate, really?

In New York, probate means that a Will has been recognized by the Surrogates Court as proper.  The end result is that somebody (usually the person named as Executor in the Will) receives a document from the Court called “Letters Testamentary”.  This is the Executor’s proof that he/she has authority to act on behalf of the Estate.

When there is a Will, in order to transfer any asset (bank and brokerage accounts, real estate, co-op apartments, etc) that was owned in the name of the deceased person, you need Letters Testamentary.

If you are named as an Executor in a Will, and you have the original Will and a death certificate, can you go into a bank and close out a deceased persons account? Nope.  The bank will tell you to come back with Letters Testamentary. What they are really saying is “get the will probated”.  This requirement is essentially a safety measure that protects all the interested parties.

Probating a Will is a Surrogate’s Court proceeding.  The specific facts and circumstances will determine whether it’s simple (and many times it is) or complicated.

I’ve heard people say that many procedures were “invented by lawyers to make things complicated so lawyers can make money”.  I see it quite differently, and I would summarize the need for these proceedings as follows:

“There is no end to the creativity and deviousness of SOME people when it comes to doing what is NOT proper, ethical, moral and legal.  The court proceedings are designed to protect the wishes of the person who made the Will, as well as to protect those who the decedent intended to inherit.  Related to that is sometimes it’s just not clear that the “Will” in question is actually what the person wanted. The procedures are designed to make sure the people affected by the Will are notified and that they have an opportunity to be heard (if there is some issue worth hearing)”

Since there is no way for the Court to know in advance whether a particular Will has “issues”, or whether the people involved are honest and nice, to probate a Will and get Letters Testamentary requires following the procedures.  That being said, VERY often you can identify the interested parties, they can all sign a “Waiver and Consent”, and the Will can be admitted to probate (and Letters Testamentary issued) pretty quickly.

Does it take some legal knowledge and time and experience to probate a Will? Sure, but in friendly situations (which is often the case) the fees should not be onerous. If they are, call a different lawyer. Can the fees become substantial if there are issues with a Will?  Certainly, but we lawyers didn’t create a system to encourage that. The procedures are in place to be sure that interested parties are heard and can have the issues resolved by a Court if necessary.  Personally, I’d rather earn modest fees in friendly situations, as opposed to bigger fees from dysfunctional family feud cases.  But hey, we can only play the hands we are dealt.

Probate is not a dirty word.  It’s a necessary proceeding so that a person’s Will can be carried out.

Questions sometimes arise about where to keep a Will, and who to tell about it. In a perfect world, where families are close and people communicate openly, this would not be an issue.  The person who makes a will should discuss it with his trusted family members and tell them where the will is, confident in the knowledge that when the time comes, the will will be found, the Executor will probate the Will, and its terms will be carried out.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work that way.  Sometimes clients have to resort to deception and skulduggery just to make their will, and they want to keep it a secret.  Sometimes they are comfortable having people know they made a Will, but they don’t want the location of the Will to be known.  When I draft Wills for clients in this situation, I want to respect their wishes and help them achieve their objective.

I always alert Will drafting clients about the importance of deciding where the Will should be kept.  In these situations I look at whether anyone with access to the will would benefit from its disappearance. I recently had an elderly client whose closest living relative is a nephew.  He didn’t care much for the nephew, who would stand to inherit 100% if there were no Will.   He put the nephew in the will for $50,000, made some other cash bequests, and left the rest (about $400,000) to his best friend, with a provision that if his best friend died first, this share was to go to his best friend’s family.  I knew this client long enough and well enough to know this was all legit, but he is very concerned that his nephew would be called to his residence if he died, and then the Will would not be secure.  (As an aside, in my view a person would have to be conscience-less to destroy a Will, but sadly there are a lot of folks who’d do that)  My client is uncomfortable keeping the Will in a safe deposit box, and did not want to leave it with me.  I suggested that we file the Will for safekeeping with Surrogates Court, while he is still living.

Many people, including lawyers, don’t know you can do this.  You CAN, and it can be very useful.  In New York, it costs $45 to file.  The benefit of this is clear:  A person who doesn’t like the Will can’t get at it.  Furthermore, if the person dies and the bad person tries to file an Administration proceeding as if there were no Will (which is what they always do), the Surrogates Court clerks ALWAYS checks for wills on file.  This stops the bad guys in their tracks.  I have filed wills for safekeeping quite a few times in the last 30 years.  I know of a few instances where it prevented mischief.  Just as important though, is that the clients always felt better having done it, and they always appreciated the advice.

What happens when a person dies without a Will? Contrary to popular misconception, their assets do NOT “go to the State”. When there is no will, and a person dies, the laws of intestacy apply. All States have such laws, essentially a logical order with the closest relatives inheriting. In New York, it goes like this:

– if a spouse and no children, all to the spouse

– if children and no spouse, all to the children, per stirpes *

– if spouse and children, first $50,000 to the spouse, then 50% to the spouse and remaining 50% to the children, per stirpes *

– if no spouse or children, all to the parent(s)

– if no parents, all to siblings (or children of predeceased siblings, a/k/a nieces/nephews), by representation **

– if no siblings or nieces/nephews, you start getting to aunts/uncles and cousins. (lots of special rules)

– if no aunts/uncles/cousins, you go to first cousins once removed, ie – children of pre-deceased first cousins (even more special rules)

* I try to avoid using legal lingo, but “per stirpes” come up a lot, and is mentioned in lots of wills.  It means “per the lineage”, and can be illustrated with a simple example.  If an unmarried person dies, and had two adult children, but one of the children had pre-deceased but had three children (grandchildren to the person who died), the estate would go 50% to living child, and 50% split 3 ways among the children of the pre-deceased child.

** Sibling/niece/nephew cases are not done per stirpes, but “by representation”.  The best way to calculate this is to say its sort of like per-stirpes BUT nobody has an advantage or disadvantage by being in a larger or smaller family.  A simple example to illustrate this:  The decedent was not married, had no children, and parents pre-deceased.  He had three siblings, one is living and the other two pre-deceased.  Of the two who pre-deceased, one had two children and the other had four children.   Under inheritance by representation, the surviving sibling would inherit 1/3, and the remaining 2/3 would be divided equally among the six nieces/nephews.

The above is a rough sketch.  There are rules to cover EVERY situation you could think of, and they ALL come up.  When the question is “which relatives are entitled to what percentage”, there is always an answer to that question.  Of course, sometimes it is not so clear who is legally related. As you might imagine, we sometimes have to determine who was married (or divorced), or who was somebody’s parent, or was somebody legally adopted, or whatever became of somebody who has gone missing.

Rarely a dull moment!

Every case has a story, a set of facts that answer the question “What is this about?”

That is always the first question. The first question I ask a new client. The first question I address when telling an associate or paralegal about a new matter, and the first question Judges ask whenever you appear in court.

In the past few years I’ve been focusing on probate and estate administration cases. I always had a few in general practice, and was surprised how much I liked them. Sometimes when I tell people I do “probate and estate administration” they say “Oh, estate planning?” Well….no, the cases I have are usually the ones where they didn’t do any fancy estate planning, and then….they died. This turns out to be most cases where people die, and most people do need professional assistance to get things done and completed efficiently.

It is also sufficiently complicated that not every lawyer is trying to get into it (I like to think it’s because of the complexity, but perhaps other lawyers find it distasteful). I find it challenging and not distasteful. There is something satisfying in bringing a successful conclusion to someone’s affairs.

In these situations, the initial answer to “What is this about?” is always the same….

“So-and-so died, and then……”

Thus begins a probate and estate administration case. In New York, probate means there is a will, estate administration means there isn’t. Either way the dead person’s assets are going SOMEWHERE. Ah, but where, and how, and who is involved, and what’s going to happen?

Although the stories all start out the same (somebody died, and then …), after that it is never the same. Sometimes it all falls into place, everybody is lovey-dovey, and it’s just a matter of knowing what papers to file. Sometimes these cases are dysfunctional family feuds, with acrimony and bitterness that would humble the worst matrimonial case. If contested matrimonials involve anger, jealousy, and other toxic emotions, contested estates have that and more. It is not uncommon to find a range of emotional issues among numerous family members (generally the children of an older person), where none of it has been openly discussed for many years. Then, the dreaded unspoken thing happens (so and so dies….), and now all the things that have not been talked about MUST be talked about. It would be easy to say these cases all come down to money, and many do, but it is also money infused with deep-seated emotional and psychological issues.

I stopped doing matrimonial cases many years ago, precisely because I did not like being involved in such bitterness. One of the things I hated about matrimonial cases was, they never ended. The parties were always coming back for more. Estates are not like that. Even when they are bitter, at some point they end, the dead remain dead, and the living move on. And no matter what they did during the case, as they fought over their relatives money, none of them are getting out of here alive either.

Sometimes people actually realize this during the case and make peace. Sometimes not, but it’s nice when that happens.

Many lawyers deal with Surrogates Court only peripherally.  Questions about Estates and Surrogates Court come up often enough that it is worth knowing the basics. Here are 10 things worth knowing, even if you never set foot in Surrogates Court.

1. The Surrogate Court Clerk’s offices are broken down into departments:

– Probate (Wills and will contest issues)
– Administration (Appointment of fiduciary when there is no Will)
– Accounting (Issues concerning distribution of the Estate, a/k/a “fighting over the money”)
– Guardianship (protection of minors, personally and financially)
– Miscellaneous (all kinds of proceedings: entering an apartment, getting into a safe deposit box, removing fiduciaries, and more)

2. In probate cases there is a presumption that an attorney drawn and supervised will was validly executed. In a contest the burden of proof is on an objectant claiming improper execution. A non-attorney supervised will does not get this presumption, so the burden is on the proponent to prove proper execution. Sometimes this is a BIG hurdle.  Note to any LegalZoom Will customers – Think about the above before you “save money” doing it yourself!

3. To the extent any beneficiary in an Administration (intestacy) proceeding does not waive the requirement of the fiduciary posting a bond, the proposed fiduciary must post a bond in proportion to the beneficiaries interest. VERY often proposed fiduciaries are not able to qualify for a bond.

4. If there is a delay in a probate or administration proceeding, and something important needs to be done (like selling a house or co-op), it often makes sense to obtain “preliminary letters”. It costs some money and requires a bond, but in the end it can save the Estate a lot of money.

5. Contrary to what many clients think, death does not absolve an Estate from creditor’s claims. A fiduciary must address claims they know about or had reason to know about. There are a lot of rules and caselaw on this, but the bottom line is fiduciaries do better when they address claims pro-actively. There are also some claims (funeral, administration expenses, taxes) which take priority over general creditor claims.

6. When a proceeding is filed to open a safe deposit box to search for a Will, the box is opened in the presence of a bank officer. The contents are inventoried, and if a Will is found it is delivered to the Court. If a box is being opened after a fiduciary is appointed, the bank officer should not observing. The fiduciary has a right to open the box on their own.

7. Nothing substantive can happen on a Surrogates Court proceeding until “jurisdiction is complete”. This occurs when all the interested parties have either signed a Waiver or been served. In a probate proceeding, all parties who would have an inheriting interest under intestacy are entitled to notice. This is true even if they are not named in the Will.

8. Whenever an interested party can’t speak for themselves (some examples are minors, disabled people, missing people, or “unknowns”) the Surrogate appoints a “Guardian-ad-Litem” for them. The Court fixes a fee for the Guardian-ad-Litem after they file a report, and they are paid out of the Estate. I’ve heard cynics question this, but in my view, this procedure is absolutely essential. I have served as a Guardian-ad-Litem many times, and take these assignments very seriously.

9. Estates worth under $30,000 (with or without a Will) can be handled under a simplified proceeding under Article 13 of the SCPA (Surrogates’s Court Procedures Act). These are designed to be handled without an attorney. Most clients can handle these on their own. Such an appointment enables a person to collect up to $30,000. However, they would not be able to sign a deed or transfer real estate with this type of appointment.

10. First cousins can inherit under intestacy, but generally they can’t become fiduciaries. In “cousin cases”, the Public Administrator is the fiduciary. These Estates ultimately become “kinship cases”. This is a fascinating specialty within Surrogates Court practice.

Sometimes Surrogates Court seems like it’s own little world. It has many unique rules and procedures. All of these are designed to ensure fairness and prevent premature or improper distributions. Once one gets the hang of it, it starts to make sense. Most of the time, anyway.