As a NY estate lawyer I am always surprised to learn of wealthy celebrities who pass away without having drafted their Last Will & Testament. However unforeseeable tragedies can happen to any of us not just celebrities. A question I am frequently asked is what happens under the NY estate law when we pass without a valid NY Will drafted by a NY estate lawyer? NY estate law refers to estates where there is not a NY Will as intestacy or intestate. This is in contrast to NY estates where a will has been properly executed, these estates pass through probate, the legal process of hiring a NY estate lawyer to probate the Last Will & Testament. However in the State of New York, as in most any other state, if you do not have a valid will the NY estate law applies a rigid formula based on your next of kin to determine who will inherit your NY estate. Rather than the NY estate going through the streamlined probate process within the New York Surrogate’s Courts, which is always preferable, the intestate estate must go through administration. Administration is a much longer, more difficult process which can also prove costlier. In NY estates, administration requires a court’s determination as to the identity of the deceased’s heirs. Once identified pursuant to EPTL §4-1.1 the NY estate will be divided between a surviving spouse and any and all surviving children of the decedent. If the decedent was not survived by either spouse or children, the proceeds will then be distributed to surviving parents. If the decedent was not survived by parents their NY estate will be distributed equally among any and all surviving siblings. If the decedent is not survived by siblings, their NY estate shall pass to surviving nieces or nephews. Absent living nieces or nephews the NY estate will be distributed among any and all surviving aunts, uncles, and first cousins.
Once next of kin are identified The Surrogate’s Court must then determine which of the heirs, if any, would be eligible to serve as fiduciary of the NY Estate, also called the Administrator. Sometimes, when heirs are either ineligible to serve based on various qualifications or cannot agree who will serve amongst themselves, the court may appoint a third party to administer the NY estate. In New York as in most jurisdictions each County has a Public Administrator to serve this function. Absent a will, the Surrogate’s Courts of New York will also require the Administrator to post a bond for the estate assets which is an insurance policy against any theft or loss to the NY Estate. Within a NY probate the filing of a bond is almost always waived, but without a NY will the Court will require the fiduciary to post a bond.
Therefore, leaving behind an estate without a NY will, also known as Administration, will require your next of kin to qualify to be your fiduciary. If your children are either irresponsible, minors or unable to serve as Administrator for any reason this could spell costly trouble for your heirs. Additionally, even when your next of kin are of suitable age and qualifications, they may still not agree on any one amongst themselves serving as the Administrator. In this case your NY estate could easily become embroiled in costly NY estate litigation indefinitely.
Estate of Samantha Miller
The night of April 28th 2023 should have been one of the happiest nights of Samantha Miller’s life. April 28th was the night the thirty four year IT professional was to marry the love of her life Aric Hutchinson. The couple was to wed in a beach front wedding at a country club in Charleston South Carolina. With the backdrop of a picture perfect sunset against the ocean on a beautiful April evening, the happy couple blissfully exchanged their vows and became husband and wife. After the ceremony the happy couple celebrated with friends and family at their reception. At the end of the evening the couple got into a golf cart and left their celebration to go back to their hotel.
Unfortunately, the happy couple’s nuptials were short lived as their golf cart was hit from behind by a 24 year old drunk driver, Jamie Lee Komoroski, while leaving the reception. Komoroski had been drinking with friends at local bars on the evening of April 28th and had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. As a result of the tragedy, 34 year old Samantha Miller was killed instantly and her 36 year old husband of only a few hours was left in critical condition requiring several surgeries to walk again.
In an interesting twist, while recovering in the hospital, Miller’s surviving spouse, Aric learned that Samantha’s mother had retained estate lawyers to get herself appointed Administrator of her daughter’s estate. However in order to sue the offending driver, Jamie Lee Komoroski and the bars that served her the alcohol on the night of April 28th, Lisa Miller, Samantha’s mother, was required to be appointed Administrator of her daughter’s Estate. Based on the age of Samantha Miller at the time of her death and income levels as an IT professional, it is was anticipated that any recovery in the wrongful death lawsuit against the bars, also known as Dram Shop Liability, could be in the millions of dollars.
One minor wrinkle in Lisa Miller’s plan to become Administrator of her daughter Samantha Miller’s Estate, is Samantha was survived by her husband Arik. Clearly the young couple had not been married for more than several hours and had not had time to plan their estate. Therefore, Samantha Miller died intestate, without a valid will. As stated above, when we pass without a valid will, our estates pass through Administration and are eventually distributed to our next of kin. In this case, Samantha Miller’s next of kin was her husband Arik. Once the couple filed their marriage license and completed their wedding ceremony, the two were deemed legally married by operation of law. As such, Lisa Miller has no claim to her daughter Samantha Miller’s Estate and/or any and all proceeds from the subsequent wrongful death action. In other words, Lisa Miller had no standing to become the Administrator in her daughter’s Estate.
As you could imagine, Samantha’s grieving husband Arik, hospitalized and recovering from life threating injuries himself was blindsided by his mother-in-law’s legal maneuver to seize control of his wife’s estate. Not only were Lisa Miller and her estate lawyer’s actions untoward and despicable, applying for Letters of Administration in her daughter’s Estate, there was no basis under the estate law to do so. When questioned about her application, Lisa Miller, Samantha’s mother said her daughter never married Arik Hutchinson. Despite being present at her daughter’s wedding, Lisa Miller challenged the couple’s matrimony on the basis that the couple never consummated the marriage. Arik, Samantha Miller’s surviving husband, hired his own estate lawyers to move against Lisa Miller for fraud moving forward to become his wife’s Administrator himself. The Court ruled in Hutchinson’s favor stating there is no legal requirement that a married couple have to consummate their nuptials in order to be legally recognized as married under the Estate Law. As such Lisa Miller was forced to withdraw her petition to become Administrator of her daughter’s Estate. Hutchinson has since settled the wrongful death suits on behalf of wife’s Estate against three different bars and collected more than a million dollars though the exact terms of the settlements were not disclosed. The 24 year old offending driver is currently in jail awaiting trial, facing more than twelve years in jail.
As you can see, passing without a NY estate lawyer drafted and supervised will can create many hardships and legal challenges for those trying to administer your affairs after you are gone. Any NY estate lawyer will tell you the best way to avoid these difficulties is to protect your wealth by drafting your NY will ahead of time. The process is cheap, easy and once the documents are created you never have to think about it again. Unfortunately in Samantha Miller’s case, this tragedy was unforeseeable, occurring at the worst possible moment without warning. Fortunately for most of us there is time to prepare.
If you or a loved one are thinking about planning your estate and would like to speak with a New York estate lawyer feel free to call The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation. Our NY estate lawyers have more than 60 combined years of NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Richmond, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, and Dutchess.