Determining a Decedent’s Domicile for Probate in New York

Most people assume that their home is their legal domicile, but the issue of legal domicile is much more complicated than that.  Establishment of a person’s domicile depends upon the nature of the person’s contacts with the State, an intent to domicile in the State, the mental capacity to form that intent to domicile in the State, and the location of a person’s tangible assets.  If this sounds very much like what is required to establish a contract in New York, it’s because the establishment of a domicile in New York is an implicit contract between an individual and the State that grants the State jurisdiction over the individual and his/her tangible assets.  When a person dies, the Surrogate’s Court in the county in which the decedent dies or the situs of the tangible assets then has jurisdiction over the estate for the purposes of probate or administration.  For a domicile to be established, there must be a “union of residence and intention” [Matter of Urdang, 194 AD2d 615, 615–16 (2d Dept. 1993)], which requires the same mental capacity as is required to sign a contract.

Residence and domicile are not the same thing.  A person may have several residences but only one domicile.  “Residence is necessary to establish a domicile but it is not controlling unless there is the intention of making that place one of permanent abode and adopting it as the domicile. Change of residence from one place [to] another is strong evidence of an intention to change place of domicile but standing alone is insufficient and while a person may have two places of residence, he may have only one domicile.” [In re Knowlton’s Will, 192 Misc. 1032, 1038 (Sur. Ct. 1948)].  Domicile is defined as “[a] fixed, permanent and principal home to which a person wherever temporarily located always intends to return”  [SCPA § 103(15)].  To change domicile then requires provable acts and intentions on the part of an individual that will effectively remove that individual from the jurisdiction of the State.  “The law is well settled that an existing domicile continues until a new one is acquired. It is incumbent upon the party seeking to prove a change of domicile to demonstrate such a change by clear and convincing evidence. To meet this burden, the movant must establish the decedent’s intention to effect a change of domicile from her acts, statements, and conduct [Matter of Pingpank, 134 AD2d 263, 265, 520 N.Y.S.2d 596)].  The legal standard of proof of clear and convincing evidence can be a difficult standard to satisfy.

In re Will of Ann Matarazzo [72 Misc.3d 1214(A)], the question before the court turned on the issue of domicile as to whether the Orange County Surrogate had jurisdiction to probate a 2014 Will executed in New York, or whether a New Jersey court had jurisdiction to probate a later 2015 Will.  Decedent had two sons; the elder son resided in Washington, New Jersey while the younger son resided in Greenwood Lake, New York.  Decedent and her husband had resided and been domiciled in Malverne, New York.  The younger son moved in with his parents to care for his parents beginning in 1986.  The father died in 2009.  In 2010, the decedent moved in with the older brother in New Jersey, and the younger son married for the first time and moved back to Greenwood Lake.  In 2015 the decedent sold her home in Malverne and continued to live in New Jersey.  Then in 2018 the decedent moved into a nursing home in Pennsylvania that cared for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia, having never repurchased another home.

Was the decedent’s move to New Jersey “temporary” or was her residence in New Jersey from 2010 to 2018 continuous and exclusive?  Were weekend visits to Greenwood Lake sufficient to show her intent to remain a New York domiciliary?  Did the fact that she used the Greenwood Lake address on her tax forms, financial accounts, benefit accounts, etc., and by paying New York State income taxes while she resided in New Jersey evince her desire to remain a New York domiciliary?

Moreover, there were facts in evidence to show that the decedent may have been suffering from dementia as early as 2013.  Decedent would not have had the mental capacity to legally change her domicile after 2013 because she could not form the intent.  And even if a court-ordered guardian had been appointed for the decedent under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law, the guardian would only have had the power to change the ward’s residence but not her domicile without a court order [In re Guardian & Prop. of Lillian, 20 Misc 3d 215, 216–17 (Sup. Ct. 2008), rev’d sub nom. In re Lillian U., 66 AD3d 1219 (3d Dept. 2009)].  

The Surrogate did not opine as the the validity of either the 2014 or 2015 Wills, or the purported  diminished capacity of the testator.  Rather, the Surrogate asked both parties to provide evidence that would definitively establish the decedent’s domicile at a hearing on that question before the court would decide on the threshold question of jurisdiction.The question of domicile must remain front and center in the mind of a testator even after a Will has been properly executed.  The threshold question of domicile could derail even the most well-though out estate plan if the estate plan is dependent upon the jurisdiction of a particular State.

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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Costly Omissions in Wills: The Missing Power of Appointment

We are  a “do-it-yourself” society.  If something needs to be done, then we will find a way to do it.  However, there are certain tasks that we should never tackle without expert professional help (in my case, plumbing goes to the top of the list).  Drafting a Will is one of those tasks because ambiguities and omissions in drafting can be very costly to those you leave behind.

Here are a few reasons why.  Each state has laws that govern the language, including terms of art (language with special legal meaning), the proper means of execution, and a set of distribution rules that must be clearly understood and clearly followed.  In addition, there are tax implications with respect to bequests.  These must be carefully analyzed with your attorney so as to minimize the impact on beneficiaries.  The reason that we write a Will in the first place is to protect the people we love.  By having an attorney draft your Will, you also ensure that the people in your life receive the care and financial support that they will need to carry on.  This is especially true for small children, persons with disabilities, persons with special needs, and surviving spouses or domestic partners.  Finally, things change every year in our lives and it is a very good practice to review the contents of your Will on a yearly basis.  You likely won’t change your Will yearly, but you will better understand its meaning with respect to your present circumstances after this review.

Consider the case of Anita Hamilton [In the Matter of the Estate of Hamilton, 190 A.D.2d 927 (1993)].  She married Milton Hamilton in a second marriage.  Milton had two daughters from a prior marriage, Mary H. McLaughlin and Gwendolyn H. Stevens, and Anita had a son by a prior marriage, John H. Ricketson.  

On February 26, 1989  Milton passed away.  Over the years, Milton had drafted several Wills, one in 1966, one in 1975 revoking the 1966 Will, and one in 1982 revoking the 1975 Will. He had drafted his last Will and testament on April 5, 1982 and directing that his residuary estate should be divided into two funds.  Fund A was a marital deduction trust.  Fund B constituted Milton’s bequests to his daughters.  With respect to Fund A, Milton directed that the remaining principal be “paid,  transferred or distributed … in such manner … as [Anita Hamilton] may by her last Will and Testament direct and appoint” (Hamilton, at 928). 

Milton’s Will was very specific concerning this power of appointment.  It was  “exercisable only by specific reference to said power in [Hamilton’s] last Will and Testament”.  Failure to effectively exercise the power of appointment in this specific way meant that the assets remaining in Fund A passed to McLaughlin and Stevens.

Anita Hamilton passed away 15 days after her husband died.  Her last will and testament dated December 22, 1967, fifteen years before her husband had executed his last Will.  In Anita’s Will were the following words:  “By this paragraph of my Last Will and Testament, I do specifically exercise the power of appointment given to me by paragraph “Sixth” of the Last Will and Testament of my husbanddated the 26th day of August, 1966, in favor of my son, JOHN HENRY RICKETSON … or to his issue him surviving, to the extent of seven-eighths (7/8ths) of the fund over which I have the power of appointment, and I give, devise and bequeath to SUE M. RICKETSON, wife of my son, one-eighth (1/8th) of the fund over which I have the power of appointment under the said Last Will and Testament of my husband …  By these provisions, I do specifically exercise the power of appointment given to me by the Will of my said husband” (Id. at 928).  Both Milton’s and Anita’s Wills were admitted to probate. 

The Surrogate Court of Albany County looked at the specific language in Milton’s 1982 Will and decreed that Anita had not made proper reference to that specific power of appointment in her Will.  Instead, she had referenced Milton’s 1966 Will that had been revoked by two subsequent Wills.  Consequently, the court decreed that the principal of Fund A be awarded to Milton’s daughter’s.  Anita’s son John Ricketson appealed.

The Appellate Court, Third Department affirmed the Surrogate Court’s decision.  The Court made explicit reference to the language of EPTL 10-6.1:  “[i]f the donor has expressly directed that no instrument shall be effective to exercise the power unless it contains a specific reference to the power, an instrument not containing such reference does not validly exercise the power.”  Because Anita’s Will referenced a Will that had been revoked, her power of appointment failed.  The result was that her stepdaughters received what she had intended for her son and his family.

A carefully review of Anita’s Will by an attorney may have revealed the omission.  A do-it-yourself Will in such a case would also be grossly ineffective to preserve the bequest.  Moreover, the Hamilton case illustrates the dependencies of one Will document on another Will document.  Every family is different and each person in it represents a unique instance.   A Will drafted by another family member could impact or limit your ability to pass on a bequest to a designated beneficiary.  That is why it is always best to consult and work with an attorney who is versed in these matters.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, review your current Will, or put together an estate plan that is tailored for your needs, 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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A Thanksgiving Checklist as We Count Our Blessings…

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is the time when we gather around the table to celebrate with family and friends.  Many of you are traveling to visit your family, and many of you are receiving family and friends for Thanksgiving.  Soon there will be the familiar and anticipated aromas coming from the kitchen and we will gather around the table to enjoy a fabulous meal prepared by loving hands and give thanks for all of our blessings.

This is also the time of year that I suggest for an annual review of your legal life plan because the people you love and want to protect are right there with you.  So this weekend, as you savor the leftovers, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I need a Will?
  • If I have a Will, has anything major occured in my life this past year so that I should review it with an attorney?
  • Do I need to look into setting up a trust?
  • Have I reviewed all of my beneficiary designations on such things as life insurance policies and retirement plans?
  • Do I need a living Will?
  • Do I need a Power of Attorney for financial matters?
  • Do I need a Power of Attorney for health care?
  • Do I need a prenuptial agreement?
  • Do I need a postnuptial agreement?
  • Do I need a domestic partnership agreement?

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, review your current legal life plan, or put together a legal life plan that is tailored for your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.

From my home to yours, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!  May you and your family continue to be blessed.

The Federal Estate Tax: A Brief History

In many ways, the United States inherited the model for the federal estate tax from the British.  In feudal England, the monarch owned all of the real property and granted use of real estate to his nobles during their lifetime (life estate).  When the nobleman died, his heir could continue to use the land upon payment of an estate tax to the sovereign.  These death taxes provided needed income to the Crown to pay for war debts.   In default of heirs, the estate reverted to the Crown (escheat).  The statute Quia Emptores passed in 1290 finally granted the right to of an individual to hold an estate in land in fee simple (freehold) and to sell it (alienation), but it left  the matter of the estate tax in the hands of the Crown.

The original Thirteen Colonies were the result of real estate grants and licences from the British Crown founded on the principles of Quia Emptores.  Whether New York still retained vestiges of Quia Emptores in its real estate law was  the subject of debate in the 19th century.  The court in De Peyster v. Michael, 6 NY 467 (1852), held that Quia Emptores had never been in effect in the colonies, meaning that land was not freely alienable in New York.  Seven years later, in Van Rensselaer v. Hays, 19 NY 68 (1859), the court in that case held that Quia Emptores had always been in effect in New York.  The question was settled in New York State Constitution Article 1 §12 which states “all lands within this state are declared allodial, so that, subject only to liability to escheat, the entire and absolute property is vested in the owners, according to the nature of their respective estates.”  In a prior post, I have addressed the issue of the possibility of an estate escheating to the State when an individual dies without a Will (intestate). 

In 1765 the British Crown had imposed the Stamp Act specifically on the American colonies, the purpose of which was to help defray the military expenses, mainly troop salaries,  for the recently-fought Seven Year’s War with France.  Among the provisions of the Stamp Act was a requirement that legal documents, such as Wills, be produced on special stamped paper produced in London and containing a revenue stamp.  Thus any colonist wishing to make a Will had to pay a tax.  Colonial discontent with taxes such as these would lead to the Revolutionary War.

Ironically the new government did not abandon this practice of enacting a tax on Wills to raise money to pay for military debts.  In an article published in the Journal of Business & Economics Research,  Eddie Metrejean and Cheryl Metrejean demonstrate an historical pattern whereby federal inheritance taxes began to be enacted to pay for wartime expenses.  Just a few years after the Revolution, the new Congress passed the Stamp Act of 1797 establishing a tax on Wills related to the transfer of property after death, once again to pay for a war in 1794 (albeit undeclared) with France.  But the law was quickly abolished before it could take effect.

The issue of an inheritance tax would not arise again until the Civil War.  A wartime inheritance tax was passed as part of the Revenue Act of 1862 affecting only the northern states, whose purpose was to raise over $1 million from estates valued at over $1000.  After the war, the inheritance tax was abolished by the Revenue Act of 1870.  Another short-lived inheritance tax was passed in 1898 to raise revenue for the Spanish-American War.  It was repealed in 1902.

Congress passed its first permanent estate tax with the Revenue Act of 1916, three years after the passage of the 16th Amendment and the institution of the federal income tax.  The constitutionality of new federal estate tax was challenged in New York Trust Co. v. Eisner, 256 U.S. 345 (1921), and in an opinion delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes the Supreme Court held that the new law posed no “unconstitutional interference with the rights of the states to regulate descent and distribution” (256 U.S. 345, 348 (1921).

In order to close the loophole in the tax that allowed people to escape the inheritance tax by giving away their property, Congress passed a gift tax in 1932 that was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in Heiner v. Donnan, 285 U.S. 312 (1932).  In 1948, the marital deduction became law, allowing property to pass to one’s spouse without paying any estate tax.

The most significant changes to the federal estate tax occurred with the Tax Reform Act of 1976.  The Act enacted the following changes:

  •  a single unified rate structure for transfers of property at death; 
  • a single unified rate structure for lifetime property transfers; 

  •  a unified exemption from taxes for certain transfers made either during one’s lifetime or at death; 
  •  a generation-skipping tax, taxing the transfer at the unified rate of the “skipped” generation if the beneficiary was two or more generations younger than the donor.

There have been other significant additions to the law.  In 1980, the “stepped-up” basis restored to the pre-1976 provisions, giving the beneficiaries a significant break in the amount of capital gains they would pay on transferred property that they later sold. 

In 1981, the martial deduction became unlimited, but with a catch.  With proper estate planning, the surviving spouse can escape paying any estate tax.  Without estate planning, the surviving spouse is left with a much larger estate on which the estate tax will be imposed.

In 2001 President Bush signed into law the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001.  The law repealed the federal estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes after 2009, meaning that anyone dying during 2010 is able to pass on his or her estate free of any federal estate, gift, or generation-skipping taxes.  However, state inheritance taxes may still be in effect.  But the 2001 law contained an expiration date:  all of the provisions of the 2001 law are set to expire on December 31, 2010.  Should Congress not act, then the pre-2001 estate tax will automatically reappear in 2011.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Adoption and Inheritance, Part 4: The Million-Dollar Issue

It is not a rare occurrence for a step-parent to adopt  the child of his or her spouse.   The adoption is usually the result of a desire to create a strong family unit where a second marriage has occurred.  In the case of the adoption of Lloyd Dudley Seaman, however, his adoption by his step-father would lead to a ground-breaking New York Court of Appeals case that would define inheritance rights by the issue (children) of children adopted by their step-parent.

Lloyd Dudley Seaman’s father, Lloyd I. Seaman, married twice.  With his first wife Gladys, he had a son Lloyd Dudley.  After he and Gladys divorced, he married Mary with whom he had a daughter Roberta.  Gladys also remarried, and subsequently her new husband adopted Lloyd Dudley.  Lloyd Dudley later had a daughter Charlotte, while Roberta had no children.  Lloyd Dudley predeceased his half-sister Roberta.  In New York, half-blood relatives are considered whole blood relatives for the purposes of succession (EPTL § 4-1.1(7)(b):  For all purposes of this section, decedent’s relatives of the half blood shall be treated as if they were relatives of the whole blood.).

When Roberta passed away leaving behind an estate valued at close to $1 million,  the Surrogate’s Court had to determine whether Charlotte could inherit from her aunt since her father had been adopted by his step-father.  In New York, the child (issue) only possesses those inheritance rights that her adopted out parent possessed.  Adoption in New York is a creature of statute under the Domestic Relations Law (DRL).  The Surrogate reasoned that Charlotte could not inherit from Roberta because neither the 1986 Law Revision Commission recommendations nor the State Legislature that enacted those recommendations into law provided for the descendants or issue of adopted out children.  Charlotte appealed the decision to the Appellate Division Second Department, which agreed with the decision below.  Charlotte then appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

In Matter of Seaman, 576 N.Y.S.2d 838 (1991), the Court of Appeals would extend the rights of children whose parent had been adopted by a step-parent.  Since the inheritance rights of the issue of adopted out children are dependent upon their parent’s inheritance rights, the court had to do a textual and historical analysis of the statutory language to reach its decision.  As a result, this case presents us with some rich background in New York adoption history.  It is also instructive because the court relied as much on what was left unsaid by the Legislature, extracting from the silence an implicit reference to prior rights

Beginning in 1887, New York amended its adoption law with respect to inheritance rights, granting adopted children and their heirs inheritance rights from their adoptive parents while not severing their rights to inherit from their natural parents (for a very good historical analysis, see Anne Wiseman French’s article When Blood Isn’t Thicker Than Water: The Inheritance Rights of Adopted-out Children in New York, 53 Brooklyn L Rev 1007, 1011-1012 [1988]).  This was not a legislative oversight because in 1896 the Legislature affirmed its initial position when it once more amended the statute to read that the “rights of inheritance and succession from his natural parents remain unaffected by such adoption” (L 1896, ch 272, § 64).  

This version of the law remained in effect until 1963 when the Legislature terminated the inheritance rights of the adopted out child with respect to its biological parents.  It did, however, permit an exception for step-parent adoption where the custodial natural parent consented to the adoption.  In 1986, as a result of a Court of Appeals decision in In re Best, 66 N.Y.2d 151 (1985), the law was amended to state that the adopted-out child was deemed a “stranger” with respect to the biological parents.  A year later, the Legislature restored the adopted child’s limited rights in intestacy, now codified as DRL § 117(1)(e).

The issue before the Court of Appeals in Matter of Seaman was one of statutory construction because the statutes control the inheritance rights of adopted out children. Was it deliberate on the part of the Legislature to omit mention of the inheritance rights of the descendants of adopted out children in the 1987 amendment, or was it merely an oversight? If a mere oversight, then what were the rights of succession for these descendants?

The court relied heavily on the statutory language of  DRL § 117(1)(e)(1) in its decision: “the decedent is the adoptive child’s birth grandparent or is a descendant of such grandparent.”  The court found that it had direct applicability with respect to Lloyd Dudley and Roberta since they shared a common grandparent.  The court then reasoned that in the 1987 amendment the Legislature had impliedly granted the inheritance rights to the issue of the adopted out child to the same degree that these had been restored to the adopted out child.   Since the Legislature had in the past been explicit in its directive regarding the inheritance rights of descendants, the court reasoned that the Legislature’s silence on this point in the latest amendment was to be understood as a tacit affirmation of its prior stance, namely that inheritance rights of descendants of adopted children are contingent upon their parent’s rights to inherit from their natural family.

Furthermore, the court distinguished between two types of adoptions, one where the child is adopted out to strangers and the other where the child is adopted by the biological parent’s second spouse.  In the first instance, several policy concerns motivate the severance of ties between the adopted out child and the biological family, including the need for confidentiality in order to permit the full assimilation of the child into the adoptive family.  Such policy concerns are of no import in the second type of adoption, a kind of intra-family adoption that results from the divorce of one parent.  The step-parent is adopting with the permission of the biological parent, and the natural parent is not relinquishing any rights to the child.  The adoption is undertaken because of a desire to blend fully the new family.

The Court of Appeals thus found in Charlotte’s favor, permitting her to inherit from her father’s step-sister Roberta Seaman.  In so doing, the court acknowledged the reality of blended families that come into existence following a divorce and supported such intra-family adoptions by granting inheritance rights to the descendants of these children.

Matter of Seaman also serves to illustrate an important point about the need to review your Will and estate plan on a yearly basis with your attorney.  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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Adoption and Inheritance, Part 3: When the Adopted Out Beneficiary Dies Before the Birth Parent

In 1924, Mildred Murphy gave birth to a son whom she named Arthur. Arthur went to live with the Manning family who renamed him Clair Willard Manning. The Mannings officially adopted Clair in 1944 when he was 19. Sometime after World War II, Mildred and Clair re-established contact. Mildred had no other children.

Clair would eventually have four children of his own.

In 1998, Mildred executed a Will with this relevant provision:

“Fifth. I give, devise and bequeath to Clair W. Manning of Wellsboro, PA the real property owned by me on Keuka Lake, located at 132 and 134 West Lake Road, consisting of a cottage, extra lot and boathouse together with all of the contents and property located therein and thereon. I further give and bequeath to Clair W. Manning the sum of Eight thousand dollars ($8,000.00).”

She also bequeathed half of her residuary estate to Clair, the remaining half to go to her sister-in-law, Evelyn Beckman. Mildred passed away on Valentine’s Day 2002, having been predeceased by Clair on 4 March 2001.

In my previous post, I considered the issue of class gifts and the requirement under New York law that an adopted out child be specifically named in a Will or a trust in order to inherit from a birth parent as illustrated by the Matter of Piel case. For the purpose of inheritance, Domestic Relations Law (DRL) § 117 terminates the adopted-out child’s right to inherit from the biological parents unless the adopted out child is specifically named, but at the same time gives the adopted child the right to inherit from the adoptive parents.

Today’s fascinating case, Matter of Murphy, presents another twist on that same theme. In Murphy, the New York Court of Appeals case focused on the rights of the children of an adopted out child who had been named in his birth mother’s Will but who had predeceased her. In this case, the court had to construe two very relevant statutes that implicated each other but did not reference each other. In Murphy, the Court of Appeals bridged these two statutes and at the same time extended the rights of the issue of adopted out children who are named beneficiaries in a Will.

As Judge Rosenblatt noted in his majority opinion, at issue was the definition of “issue.” Can the children of a named adopted out child inherit the adopted out child’s gift, or does the gift lapse and fall into the residuary estate? More to the point, what is the interplay of New York’s anti-lapse statute (EPTL 3-3.3) with the statute governing the inheritance rights of adopted children (DRL § 117(2)(b)), particularly with respect to descendants of a named adopted out child in a Will (see my prior posting on Matter of Piel)?

What is the anti-lapse statute? The anti-lapse statute takes effect when the beneficiary under a Will dies before the testator because the law does not permit a gift to be made to a deceased person. The anti-lapse statute “saves” the gift and passes the gift on to the issue of the deceased beneficiary. However, the law applies the statute to a very narrow band of persons. The anti-lapse statute applies only when the deceased beneficiary was the issue, brother, or sister of the testator, and when the deceased beneficiary has issue (children) who survive the testator.

There are three additional important provisions concerning the anti-lapse statute. First, the anti-lapse statute will only go into effect as a result of a Will. If a person dies without a Will, the law of intestacy will apply (see my prior post on the difference between a beneficiary and an heir), meaning that the adopted out child cannot be an heir of their birth parent. Secondly, the anti-lapse statute trumps the deceased beneficiary’s Will with respect to the inherited gift because the law names the substitute taker. Finally, if a gift in a Will is conditioned upon the survival of the beneficiary, it will automatically rule out the application of the anti-lapse statute.

Note that the anti-lapse statute makes no direct reference to the inheritance rights of adopted out children. The adoption law (DRL § 117(2)(b)) is also silent with respect to the anti-lapse statute. New York law provides for full inheritance rights of adopted children from their adopting family (and vice versa), but inheritance rights of adopted out children are severed from their natural parent or kin unless (1) they are expressly named in a Will or trust; (2) they are adopted by the spouse of a natural parent, in which case the child and his issue can inherit from the adopting parent and either natural parent; or (3) the child is adopted by a relative, in which case the child can inherit under the adoptive relationship.

Furthermore, under the terms of the anti-lapse statute, if the child is adopted out by a brother or a sister of the testator (the birth parent), then the adopted out child qualifies as a substitute taker under the anti-lapse statute. If the child is related by both adoption and a natural relationship, then the adopted out child inherits under the natural relationship. This would be the case when the child was adopted by an aunt, for example, and the aunt’s mother (the child’s natural grandmother) dies. The adopted out child would inherit as a natural descendant of the grandmother. If the adoptive aunt predeceased the adopted out child, then the adopted out child could take under the anti-lapse statute.

Under New York law, adopted out children are considered “strangers” with respect to their birth mothers for the purpose of inheritance, even if they re-establish a relationship. The adopted out child inherits from the adoptive parents and, as a result, so do their children (issue). The adopted out child may inherit specific bequests or class gifts from the birth parents only if specifically named in the Will. The law is silent as to the operation of the anti-lapse statute in such a case.

Does the act of naming of an adopted out child in a Will change that person’s status from “stranger” to “issue”? This is what the court in Murphy was asked to decide. If the answer was yes, then the anti-lapse statute would be in effect and Clair’s children would inherit his bequest. If the answer was no, then Clair’s gift would fall into the residuary estate and Evelyn Beckman would inherit all of the residuary estate.

The court found in favor of the Manning children. “We therefore conclude that when Mildred Murphy named her adopted-out son Clair as a beneficiary of her will, she triggered the condition in section 117 (2) that made him a nonstranger, and thus her issue, with respect to the relevant bequest. His children, therefore, are entitled to the benefit of the anti-lapse statute.”

What Murphy means in practice is that a child adopted out by strangers receives the same rights as a child adopted out by a close relative (brother or sister of the testator), merely by being named in the testator’s Will. Murphy extends the inheritance rights of the named adopted out child’s issue under the anti-lapse statute and puts them on equal legal footing with a child adopted out by a sister or brother of the testator. And because the anti-lapse statute overrides the deceased beneficiary’s Will by operation of law, it may have the unintended consequence of defeating the original testator’s estate plans or the estate plans of the predeceased beneficiary.

The Murphy case points out once again the necessity of working with an attorney to draft your Will and tailor it to your individual needs. Though it may seem contrary to nature, children at times do predecease their parents, 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.

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.

In the next segment of this series, I will look at yet another fascinating New York case involving adopted-out children and inheritance rights. 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.