While it might not be the most important things on peoples’ minds, the truth is that all of us need a last will and testament, regardless of whether or not we think our estates are large enough to need one. Without a last will and testament or some type of trust, the assets of our estate will enter into what is known as intestacy and be distributed according to a line of succession dictated by the law, rather than what our final wishes may have been.

In New York, any assets not placed into a trust will need to pass through probate court (known as Surrogate’s Court in the state). Even in cases where the deceased created a will and specifically dictated which assets go to which heirs, the court must still hear the matter to ensure the deceased’s wishes are carried out.

However, certain assets will not pass through probate with or without a will. These types of assets include homes that are jointly owned by spouses, life insurance payouts, retirement accounts with named beneficiaries, and bank accounts set up as payable-on-death. Without a will, any other assets like personal property and savings accounts will be passed along according to New York’s intestacy laws.

Creating a trust is one of the most common ways people use to pass on the assets without having to pass the estate through probate and deal with courts, judges, and create a public record of what the individual has accrued over his or her lifetime. Just like there are many ways to pass on an estate to heirs, there are also different types of trusts that people can use to accomplish these goals.

Picking the right type of trust for one’s estate depends on many things including the type of assets in one’s estate, the individual’s goals, and whether some of the assets might go to minor children that will be unable to manage finances for themselves. Whichever type of trust you choose to go with, it should be based on careful analysis and attention to detail to ensure that your final wishes are carried and heirs receive their due inheritance.

Inter vivos trusts

A last will and testament is an incredibly important document that needs to be kept safe and help ensure that when your estate passes through probate, New York courts will allow your executor to carry your final wishes and disperse assets to your heirs. After taking all of the important steps like consulting with family members, working with a trust and estate attorney, and finally drafting the last will and testament, great care needs to be taken in storing the original copy of the will to make sure the estate can pass through probate courts as quickly as possibly and make the job of the executor that much easier.

To preserve the original copy of their last will and testament, testators (the person creating the will) have a number of options to preserve the original copy of their executed will. Many people elect to keep their executed will in a safe deposit box at a bank or other secured facility. It is important to note that no matter where the document is kept safe, the executor must know the location of the last will and testament to pass the estate through probate.

New York probate law holds that if the original executed copy of the last will and testament is lost, the probate court will presume the testator meant to revoke the document and proving anything to the contrary can be a difficult, time consuming, and expensive endeavor. Even if a bona fide copy can be produced, New York probate courts will likely not accept the document and enter it as a copy of the will.

Nowadays, almost all of us have some kind of social media account, online banking profile, or us a cloud-based system to store data and conduct various forms of business. Just like any other asset in our estate, we need to create a plan that allows a trusted friend or family member to take over these accounts after we pass away and ensure that our final wishes are carried out.

Fortunately, New York state laws understand the changing times and make estate planning for digital assets much easier than it was in years past. New York is one of several states which passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). As with the remainder of our estates, the law allows individuals to appoint an executor to manage digital assets upon the death of the testator.

Under the RUFADAA, electronic communications are considered digital assets that require strong privacy protections because they are often private correspondence between one persona and another. To give access to these sensitive communications, testators need to give explicit permission, even for seemingly harmless social media accounts like Facebook or Twitter.

Although none of us expect that we might not be able to manage our affairs later on in life, it is still important to plan out a contingency just in case circumstances like old age, a catastrophic injury, or loss of mental capacity takes over our abilities to act for ourselves. One important piece of planning folks can engage in is making sure they have a power of attorney in place to allow a trusted individual to manage their finances for healthcare and lifestyle decisions to ensure they live our their golden years with dignity.

By creating a financial power of attorney, one can allow another person to act on his or her behalf in a number of different ways including making deposits or withdrawals at the bank, manage Medicare and other government benefits, and look after financial investments. Because income and finances are such an important part of our lives, these areas need constant oversight to make sure there are no disruptions that could negatively affect our standards of living.

Under New York law, competent individuals are allowed to act on behalf of someone else to help manage finances. While it is an added benefit that the person with financial power of attorney have legal or financial management experience, the law does not require these skills as a prerequisite and one need only choose a trusted individual to act on his or her behalf. Furthermore, the parameters of the power afforded to the person with the power of attorney will be entirely spelled out in the document granting such control.

In New York, the law allows individuals to create what are known as “advanced directives” to help ensure that person’s end of life decisions are carried out in the event he or she is incapacitated or otherwise unable to make that choice. Advance directives are important for any individual, including young people, concerned about the medical state they may be left in following a serious accident, adverse medical event, or cognitive impairment brought on by alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

One of the three end of life directives legally recognized by New York law is the health care proxy which allows someone to appoint an agent to act on his or her behalf in cases where that person cannot make decisions for himself or herself. Health care proxies can be created using standard forms available from the New York State Department of Health and take effect when two doctors determine the testator is incapacitated.

Health care proxies can be either permanent or temporary, depending on the type of situation laid out in the documents. For example, a temporary health care proxy would ideal for someone going under general anesthesia and allow the proxy to make decisions quickly, if necessary. On the other hand, permanent health care proxies may be better suited for those facing long term risks due to dementia or alzheimer’s.

The executor of an estate is an important individual vital to ensuring the deceased’s assets are accounted for, debts are settled, heirs are notified, and ultimately passing the estate through probate and dividing the estate. So long as the last will and testament was notarized and filed with the appropriate court and does not exclude any heirs in violation of New York probate laws, the estate must be divided in accordance with the deceased’s wishes.

While we generally expect the individual acting as the executor to fulfill her duties and responsibly carry our the deceased’s final wishes, it is not uncommon for executors to mismanage estates to the detriment of beneficiaries. The key duties the executor is expected to carry out include the following:

  • Locating a copy of the last will and testament

If you have an estate with any number of assets, including a home, real estate, retirement benefits, and bank accounts, passing these along to your heirs can be quite a challenge for them if your will needs to go through probate. Furthermore, having your estate go through the probate courts, referred to as Surrogate’s Court in New York, creates a public record that others can look up and view, creating privacy concerns for your heirs which they may rather avoid.

The good news is that New York probate laws allow individuals numerous ways to pass along the assets of their estate to heirs that can also avoid the timely, and often times expensive, process of passing a will through probate courts. It is important to know that even these means to pass assets outside of a probate court have their own challenges that need to met in order to ensure an easier transfer of assets upon passing away.

One of the more common ways for individuals to transfer their assets upon death is to create a living trust (sometimes called an “inter vivos” or “revocable” trust) works by placing assets into a trust while still alive and then transferring to beneficiaries upon death. The benefit of a living trust is being able to maintain control of the assets during one’s lifetime and then allowing beneficiaries to assume control over the trust with the aid of a trustee.

The last will and testament is an important document an individual creates to spell out his or her final wishes to pass on the assets of an estate to friends, family, and business partners. However, New York probate laws do put limits on the extent to which a person may exclude his or her surviving spouse spouse from a will. Just as in many states, New York does not allow spouses to be cut out of wills, not matter the language contained in the document.

In situations where a deceased person excludes his or her spouse from a will, the New York Surrogate’s Court hearing the case will step in to award a certain percentage of the estate to the surviving spouse. Just as in a divorce, the law gives certain property rights to spouses to assets like homes, cars, and bank accounts that cannot necessarily be undone by a written document.

Whether or not someone passes away with a last will and testament, the deceased’s heirs must be notified my the executor of the estate that a the estate has been entered into Surrogate’s Court. In order to pass the estate through probate, the executor will need each of the decedent’s heirs to sign a waiver giving up their individual rights to challenge the will and the estate. Although it is usually not an issue to have heirs sign the waiver and agree to the split of the estate, not every situation is harmonious.

In New York, not every estate needs to pass through the probate process in Surrogate’s Court. The law gives this exemption to so-called “small estates” valued under a certain number and provider the executor to the estate handles the process correctly. Although small estates are allowed to pass through a more simplified probate process, executors will still need to perform some of the same duties as if he or she were overseeing a larger estate.

Estates with real property valued less than $30,000 are considered small estates and can avoid the lengthy and expensive formal probate process for larger estates. Even though the asset threshold for small estates may appear quite low, there are still circumstances where even large estates could pass through the small estate probate process. This is because not all personal property needs to be counted towards the $30,000 small estate threshold, thus allowing the more simplified probate process.

Under New York probate laws, only property owned exclusively by the deceased counts towards the small estate probate threshold. What his means is that jointly owned assets like homes, vehicles, and family businesses in two people’s names will not count towards the $30,000 limit. Additionally, only real property like life insurance, an IRA and similar assets with a named beneficiary do not need to be counted as these pass automatically to a beneficiary upon the passing of the deceased policyholder.

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