How Are New York State Marital Inheritance Laws Impacted by Marital Status at Time of Death?

When someone passes away, New York State inheritance laws can influence how the estate is divided among surviving heirs. If the deceased was married at the time of their death, this, too, can impact the probate process in New York.

However, even if the decedent was married at the time of their death, it does not mean that the surviving spouse will inherit their estate. There can be unique circumstances where the surviving spouse may not be entitled to inheritance.

Two money bags beside model of house

New York State marital inheritance laws require that an investigation regarding marital status be conducted to determine the validity of the marriage. The investigation must also determine whether there were divorce proceedings underway or if the divorce had been finalized, pending approval by the Family Court.

To illustrate how a surviving spouse may not be entitled to inheritance, let’s assume that a couple had filed for divorce prior to the death of the decedent. They had reached a separation and divorce settlement agreement and the agreement was accepted by the Family Court.

Their agreement contained specific wording that the divorced parties waived all rights to any survivorship rights and benefits. However, due to backlogs, the judge was not able to sign the official divorce judgment until after the decedent died.

Upon death, the surviving spouse claims marital inheritance under New York State marital inheritance laws. They even filed a right of election against the decedent’s estate because they want to attempt to get their share of the estate.

Yet, the surviving children know their parents were legally divorced. They contact a New York State probate lawyer for assistance in proving their parents were divorced. While the divorce judgment was not signed until after the decedent died, the judge had accepted and granted the divorce when they appeared in court prior to the decedent’s death.

As such, the New York Surrogate Court would conclude the decedent was divorced when they died. Therefore, the surviving ex-spouse would not be entitled to a share of the estate under spousal inheritance rights.

Please keep in mind, this is just one example and should not be viewed as binding legal advice, as every situation involving marital status at the time of death can and does vary. It is highly recommended to consult with a New York State probate lawyer if you need assistance in addressing issues relating to marital status and inheritance rights.

What if a Couple Is Legally Married at the Time of Death?

If the Surrogate Court determines the couple was still legally married at the time of death, and the surviving spouse is entitled to inheritance from the estate, then a few different things can occur. First and foremost, the Surrogate Court must determine if there is a will and whether the will is valid.

Family meeting with a lawyer

The Decedent Died with a Will

When there is a valid will, then the probate process in New York will be used to execute the decedent’s wishes as detailed in their will. The executor is officially named by the court as listed in the will. The executor is responsible for settling the estate and distributing inheritance to those named in the will.

If the decedent had attempted to disinherit their spouse or leave them less inheritance than New York State inheritance laws allow, the surviving spouse could file a right of election against the estate. Upon death, surviving spouses in New York are entitled to receive what is called an “elective share” of the decedent’s estate.

The elective share is equal to $50,000 or one-third of the net value of the estate, whichever amount is greater. In cases where the net value of the estate is less than $50,000, then the amount the spouse is entitled to receive will be reduced accordingly.

If there are no issues regarding marital inheritance and no one has any issues to contest the will, the executor will distribute property and assets according to the decedent’s will.

The Decedent Died Without a Will

Dying without a will in New York is handled differently from the probate process in New York. Instead, an administration proceeding is scheduled with the Surrogate Court. New York State inheritance laws and intestate laws will be applied to resolve the distribution of the estate.

The judge will select an administrator to serve as executor of the estate. The administrator has the same duties and responsibilities as an executor, except they will follow intestate laws to divide the estate.

The amount of the estate the surviving spouse receives will be determined by New York State marital inheritance laws.  If the couple had no children together, and the decedent had no children outside of the marriage, then the spouse will receive the entire estate.

If the couple had biological or adopted children together, or if the decedent had children outside of the marriage, then the surviving spouse receives $50,000 as their elective share, plus half of the remaining balance of the estate.

Surviving children then receive the other half of the remaining balance of the estate, which is distributed evenly between each child. So, if there were $100,000 left in the state after the surviving spouse received their elective share, and there were four surviving children, then each child would receive $25,000. This is just an example to illustrate how the intestate process works.

In cases where the decedent’s spouse preceded him or her in death, then the surviving children would receive the entire estate split equally among each child. Furthermore, if there were children that preceded the decedent in death, who had children of their own, then the grandchildren could have rights to the estate under New York inheritance law and intestate laws.

In addition, when certain assets are held jointly or where a beneficiary is named, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and so on, then New York intestate laws will distribute those assets to the joint account holder or named beneficiaries.

If there is no named beneficiary, then the asset is transferred to the decedent’s estate and is distributed according to New York inheritance law for intestate proceedings.

As you can imagine, dying without a will in New York can result in a very complex and involved administrative proceeding. Not to mention, the wishes of the decedent would not apply since there was no will. The best way to avoid placing your family into this situation is to take time to create a will with help from a New York State probate lawyer to ensure it is legal and valid.

Elderly woman with young woman reviewing a will

Furthermore, when you have a will, spousal inheritance rights are limited by the elective share requirement. You are free to decide how the remainder of your estate will be distributed to surviving heirs, pets, charities, and others.

For instance, if you wanted the bulk of your estate to be divided between your children, you would not have to worry about your spouse receiving $50,000 plus half of the remaining balance of the estate common with intestate proceedings.

Rather, your surviving spouse would receive their $50,000, and the remainder of your estate would be distributed to your children according to your wishes.

Whether you are a surviving spouse attempting to ensure you receive your elective share of the decedent’s estate or a surviving child who wants to protect your parent’s estate from their spouse, it is essential to seek legal advice from a qualified New York State probate lawyer.

For assistance and legal advice in matters relating to New York State marital inheritance laws, spousal inheritance rights, and New York State beneficiary laws in Jamaica, Queens, Brooklyn, New York City, and Manhattan, please feel free to contact Joseph A. Ledwidge, P.C. at 718-276-6656 today!

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