When Is a Child an Heir under New York Law?

In days gone by, legitimate heirs were the product of a legitimate marriage.   Any child born of a legitimate wife was considered to be the heir of her husband.  Hence, a woman’s virginity prior to marriage was a necessary precondition of the propertied classes, as was her fidelity during marriage.  Adultery by the wife was a crime against property for it chanced to produce an heir who was not the issue of her spouse, thereby depriving the legitimate heirs of a portion of their birthright.    Of course, a man could sow his “seed” far and wide and, unless he recognized the child as his own, the illegitimate child would never inherit from the father.  

But family construction is much more fluid these days, and the laws of New York have sought to respond to these changes.  The legal standard remains the best interest of the child, and the laws seek to protect the child’s welfare.  Let us look at a few of the more common scenarios where establishing legal paternity means that the child will also inherit from his/her father in intestacy.

 A.  Child Born of an Unwed Mother

While our society and our laws no longer impose the stigma of illegitimacy or bastardy on an innocent child, the laws governing intestacy in New York nonetheless provide the parameters for defining who is a legitimate heir.  This is necessary to protect the rights of succession of legally-recognized descendants and to arrange for the orderly transfer of property. 

Until 1997,  no formal acknowledgment was required by the father for the mother to list his name as the child’s father.   But because paternity brings with it a host of legal and financial obligations, New York State’s Public Health Law §4135 now requires that the father fill out and sign a form formally acknowledging legal paternity of the child.   The law was passed to prevent fraud.

A putative father can also petition the court for an order of filiation to establish paternity.  The court may order DNA testing in order to establish filiation.  Putative fathers are also encouraged to register with the New York State Putative Father Registry (a non-public registry) so that they can be notified should the child, for example, be put up for adoption.

With an acknowledgment of paternity, the child is vested with certain rights, including inheritance rights, rights to support until age 21 or emancipation, Social Security survivor benefits, among others.  The father also gains support obligations and rights such as the right to refuse adoption or foster care of the child, the right to consent to medical treatment for the child, and the rights of shared custody and visitation, among others.

It is worth noting here that if the putative father is under the age of 18, he does not have the legal capacity to establish paternity in this way (or in court) without legal representation.  As a minor he cannot enter into a legally binding contract.  The contract is voidable.  However, upon reaching majority the putative father can expressly ratify the contract, and the ratification brings with it all of the rights and obligations of paternity.

B. Adopted Child

Adoption was uncommon prior to the 19th century, and today remains the province of each state to govern. In New York, adopted in children may inherit from their adoptive parents but not from their biological parents, unless the biological parent specifically names the adopted out child as a beneficiary in a duly executed Will. The law also permits step-parent adoption and second parent adoption in cases of same-sex couples. Where a child has been conceived through surrogacy, a practice not permitted in New York, then the non-biological parent(s) must petition the court for paternity in the case of the father and for adoption in the case of the second  mother. 

C. A Child Born of a Marriage but Where the Father is not the Wife’s Husband

Because a child born of a legal marriage is presumptively the husband’s child, this raises special concerns for both the husband and the biological father.  As we discuss these scenarios, it is important to remember that the best interests of the child remains the legal standard.

Should the biological father wish to be declared the legal father of the child, then either the mother or the alleged father can petition the Family Court.  The petition will state that the child was not a product of the marriage, that the mother is married but not to the alleged father, and that the mother and the alleged father had sexual relations during which time the child was allegedly conceived.  The alleged father may also provide an affidavit stating these same facts and admitting paternity. 

If the non-biological father does not wish to block the challenge to paternity, then he may provide an affidavit of “no access”  in which he will swear that he had no sexual relations with his wife during the time period when the child could have been conceived.   The legal presumption for the time of conception is between 266 and 299 days from the beginning of the mother’s last menstrual period.

It is worth noting that New York public policy limits third party challenges to paternity of a child born in wedlock.  Thus  the husband has the right to block this petition if he wishes to raise the child as his own.  The court has the right to deny DNA testing if in the court’s opinion this would not be in the best interest of the child, especially if the child is no longer an infant and has been part of the family unit for some time. 

The legal principle of equitable estoppel may also prevent a husband or wife from challenging paternity several years after the birth.  Thus is particularly true where the non-biological father has established himself in the role of the father, where both husband and wife have held out the non-biological father as the father of the child, and where the child has relied upon these representations of paternity 

Conclusion

Because of the importance of establishing and clarifying filiation, it is important that parents take the necessary steps to ensure that their child is properly filiated so that his/her inheritance rights are secure.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, or how a revocable living trust for your digital assets can be tailored to your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.

When Is the Best Time To Make or Review Your Will?

If you have been asking yourself these questions, the answer is likely “now.”  There are several reasons why you may not want to wait.  The most obvious one is that tomorrow is promised to no one.  The second reason is that it is a good practice to review the terms of your Will on a yearly basis to assess the consequences of changes in family composition, financial updates, and changes in the tax law that may affect your estate.  The third reason is one that is often overlooked, that you may not always have the testamentary capacity to make a Will.   I have covered this topic in a previous post.

Making or changing a Will is a serious endeavor, and it should never be undertaken for negative reasons, such as to spite a relative or friend.  In New York, the making of a subsequent Will executed with all required formalities constitutes a revocation of any previously executed valid Wills and their codicils.  In New York,  a partial revocation by physical act, such as words added to a Will after it has been signed and witnessed, is not recognized and will have no effect on the Will.

A Will can also be revoked if it is destroyed by a physical act.  If the subsequent Will is later destroyed by a physical act, such as cutting it up or burning it or crossing out the testator’s signature, the prior Will that it replaced will not be revived in New York.  The earlier Will is legally invalid, and the decedent will have died intestate.

The case of Mabel Waingrow of Blooming Grove, New York provides a cautionary tale.  The owner of Town & Country Coffee Shop on Route 94, Waingrow died in 2003 at the age of 99 leaving an estate valued at $990,000.  She had outlined her husband, her son, and her siblings.  Her closest relatives were her five great-nieces and -nephews whom she never knew because they lived abroad.  A diligent attorney who prepared Waingrow’s Will in 2000 had discovered the distant relatives.

Waingrow had closed her coffee shop when she had turned 90, and without the constant social interaction she soon became a lonely recluse, beset by thoughts that people were trying to steal from her.  To her rescue came Nick Stagliano, a former criminal investigator for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office who befriended her and took care of her.    According to a story in the local Times Herald-Record, Stagliano was the only one present for her 99th birthday.

In 2001 Waingrow, who had a habit of writing a new Will to benefit whoever was friendliest to her and to spite those who had “unfriended” her, executed a new Will naming Stagliano as the sole beneficiary of her entire estate.  The next day, the Orange County Court named him Waingrow’s legal guardian because she could no longer take care of her affairs.  Her great-nieces and -nephews were not informed of this appointment.

Five years after her death, one of her grand-nieces filed suit contesting the Will claiming undue influence . The case was settled shortly after the trial began.  Waingrow’s five great-nieces and nephews received at least $500,000 of the estate, with the remainder going to Stagliano.  Stagliano also agreed to give up his role as executor of the estate.

In her multiple executions of Wills, Waingrow chanced revoking a valid Will because her failing mental health made her capacity to execute a valid Will questionable.  Had her 2001 Will been declared invalid  at trial due to undue influence, then she would have been deemed to have died intestate.

When a person dies without a Will, New York uses as its default an intestate distribution system called per capita (“each head”) at each generation. In this system, each person is weighed equally. By virtue of their presence on the family tree, no one can be disinherited.

New York also has a “laughing heir” statute (EPTL §4-1.1(6)). A “laughing heir” is someone entitled to inherit by law who is so remotely connected to the deceased that he or she would not feel any sorrow at hearing of the death. To prevent this occurrence, New York cuts off heirs at the grandchildren of the deceased: “For the purposes of this subparagraph, issue of grandparents shall not include issue more remote than grandchildren of such grandparents.” No one more remote, such as a great-grandchild, may inherit. After that, the property of the deceased escheats to the State.

Since Waingrow had no grandchildren, and since her siblings had predeceased her, her surviving grand-nieces and -nephews risked having the entire estate escheat to the State if they pressed having Waingrow’s Will declared invalid because of undue influence on the part of Stagliano.  The prior Will executed in 2000 could not be revived under New York law.   Thus the only way that the grand-nieces and -nephews could be certain to receive any money from the estate was to settle with Stagliano.

The case of  Mabel Waingrow points out once again the necessity of working with an attorney who will  draft your Will and tailor it to your individual needs. Though it may seem contrary to nature, children at times do predecease their parents, as Mabel’s son did, and this reality must somehow be accounted for in your Will.  Your attorney will work through some scenarios with you to make sure that all of your wishes are met and executable. No boilerplate form can do this kind of reasoned and careful drafting befitting your individual needs.  

It is also a good practice to make a yearly appointment with your attorney to review your Will.  Things in your life will surely change from year to year, and it is a good practice to get in the habit of talking through those changes with your attorney. Your attorney will be able to advise you as to any impact on your estate plan.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

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Bobby Fischer’s Endgame: The Perils of Dying Without a Will

When Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavík, Iceland, no one could have predicted that this location would become the site of yet another contest involving Fischer, this time a posthumous battle over his $2 million estate. Once a resident of Brooklyn, Fischer’s U.S. passport had been revoked in 2004 following some incendiary anti-American and anti-Semitic remarks (though Fischer himself was Jewish). The following year, Iceland granted him citizenship. He died in Iceland in 2008 without a Will (intestate).

According to the New York Times, there are four claimants to Fischer’s estate: Jinky Young, Fischer’s presumed daughter filing through her mother Marilyn; Miyoko Watai, who claims that she was married to Fischer, and Alexander and Nicholas Targ, Fischer’s nephews through his sister Joan.

Last month, Iceland’s Supreme Court ordered the exhumation of Bobby Fischer’s body in order to determine the legitimacy of Jinky Young’s paternity claims. The body was exhumed today and DNA samples were taken. If the DNA samples establish Fischer’s paternity, then Jinky Young will be declared his legal heir under Icelandic law.

All of the claimants have retained legal counsel to represent their interests in Iceland and, depending upon the results, these legal costs may never be recovered. All of this could have been avoided had Fischer drafted a valid Will expressing his final wishes. He could have made provisions for all of his loved ones, avoiding for them this long, protracted, and costly legal battle.

Your estate may not be the size of Bobby Fischer’s, but you likely have loved ones to whom you would like to leave bequests. Don’t put off the decision to make a valid Will. Consult with an attorney who will assist you in drafting a document that meets your unique needs.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

I invite you to join my list of subscribers to this blog by clicking on “Sign me up!” under Email Subscription on the left-hand side of the page so that you can receive a notification when the next installment has been published. Thank you.

Prenuptial Agreements and Wills: Loving Acts for a Stable Marriage

As I emphasized in a prior posting, the prenuptial agreement has gotten some bad press because it has been portrayed in celebrity divorces as a way to shield assets from one’s spouse in the event of a divorce.  As a result, many couples shy away from prenups because they see them as signs that the couple is already planning for a divorce even before they are married.  But a prenuptial agreement can be just the opposite:  a foundational element for long-term marriage stability.  In this post, we will look at how incorporating into a prenup an agreement to draft Wills makes sense to protect the couple’s estate, family, and wishes.  Having such a provision in a prenup can bring great peace of mind.

Domestic Relations Law (DRL) 236[B](3) is the statute that controls prenuptial agreements in New York.  The statute states that a prenuptial agreement may include (1) a contract to make a testamentary provision of any kind, or a waiver of any right to elect against the provisions of a will.  We will examine in detail what this provision means to you.

A prenup may include a provision to make a Will (this is called a contractual Will) or, in some cases, not to revoke a Will.   In New York, a contractual Will must contain an express statement in the Will that its provisions are intended to constitute a contract between the parties.  Contractual Wills may be revoked by an agreement of the parties.

Having a Will is not only a good idea, it is a loving act.  According to a 2007 article in Forbes, a survey done by Harris Interactive found that 55% of the general population had no Will.  If you die without a Will (i.e., intestate) in New York, New York State has a default plan for your estate, but you may not like the plan.  New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) § 4-1.1 governs the distribution of estates from persons who die without a valid Will.  This chart summarizes the law:

 

As you begin to have a frank conversation about how you want your estate distributed in the event of your death or the death of your spouse after marriage, it is a good idea to begin by having each of you fill out a family tree, like this one provided by New York State.  You will want to update this family tree yearly, and you will want to bring it with you for your attorney during your yearly visit to review your Will and estate planning.   And if you have not done so already, you will want to have a frank discussion about any known congenital diseases that are present on your family tree.  By being honest and open about your family tree issues with each other, you will build invaluable bonds of trust that will support your marriage when the difficult times come.

Each of you may also want your Will to reflect a gift to a favorite charity or non-profit organization, like a college or university.  That charitable gift will have to be expressed in your Will.  Likewise, there may be heirlooms or other family memorabilia that you would like kept in your family of origin.  Your Will is the place where you will want those exclusions made known. 

The prenup is the place where you can agree to include in your Will an added provision specific to your future spouse after the marriage takes place.   For instance, you might include a bequest to your spouses’s alma mater creating a scholarship fund in his or her name.  When the gift is one of tangible property, during your yearly review with your attorney you will want to make sure that the promised item still exists as part of your estate.  If the item has been lost or destroyed, the gift is said to adeem.  But this situation can be easily rectified by modifying the prenup as we discussed in a prior post. 

The statute also says that either party can waive any right to elect against any provision of a Will.  Here the statute is referring to the elective share statute (EPTL § 5-1.1-A).  The elective share statute protects against disinheritance by either spouse by giving the surviving spouse a minimum share of the decedent’s estate.  In New York, the elective share amounts to the greater of 50K or 1/3 of the net estate after the payment of debts, but before the payment of estate taxes.  In a prenup, either party can waive their right to the elective share.  One reason to exercise this waiver might be to protect children from a prior marriage.  Whether to waive an elective share in a prenup is a decision that must be made carefully and with full disclosure of the salient facts, including full financial disclosures. 

One advantage of drafting a prenup is that it encourages financial disclosures before marriage.  It will also encourage discussions about the emotional aspects of money (saving and spending habits, attitudes concerning debt, and issues surrounding dependency, control and self-image).   Each party should fill out a personal statement of net worth, such as this example by the Small Business Administration.  Getting into the habit of talking about financial issues before and during the marriage will go a long way in building trust in the relationship.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

I invite you to join my list of subscribers to this blog by clicking on “Sign me up!”  under Email Subscription on the left-hand side of the page so that you can receive a notification when the next installment has been published.  Thank you.