The rights of heirs to an estate generally depend on whether there is a will or not.
If there is a will, then the decedent’s will controls as to who will are the heirs of the estate. The only exception to this is the spouse who is an heir. In New York, even if the decedent does not leave any property to his/her spouse under his/her will, the spouse will always have the right to receive property from the deceased spouse.
If there is no will, then New York state law determines who are the heirs of the estate.
An estate where there is no will
An heir is a person entitled to inherit under the state’s statute if a person dies (the “decedent”) without a will. Generally, these heirs are the decedent’s family members or closest relatives. In New York, the heirs are identified under Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law (EPTL) § 4-1.1. In general, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children (or descendants of children), the spouse gets $50,000 plus ½ of the remainder, and the balance goes to the children or their descendants by representation. If there is a spouse but no descendants, the entire estate goes to the spouse. If there are descendants but no spouse, the entire estate goes to the descendants. If there are no spouse and descendants, the entire estate goes to the parents. If there are no spouse, descendants, or parents, the entire estate goes to the descendants of the parents by representation. If there are no spouse, descendants, parents or descendants of parents, then to the grandparents or the grandparents’ descendants by representation, but the descendants in this case shall be limited to the grandchildren of the grandparents.
An estate where there is a will
If the decedent dies with a will, then the heirs have no right to the estate. The beneficiaries named by the decedent in his will are the persons with a right to the estate. A beneficiary is a person named in a legal document, such as a will, who is entitled to receive property. For example, in an insurance policy, there is a named beneficiary who will receive the insurance proceeds. In a will, the people designated by the decedent to receive his property are called the beneficiaries.
When the decedent dies with a will, the decedent can omit giving any property to his heirs. The decedent can decide to give his property to friends. When this occurs, the decedent is said to have disinherited his heirs. In New York, however, the decedent can disinherit all heirs, except the spouse. Under EPTL § 5-1.1-A, a surviving spouse has a personal right of election to take a share of the decedent’s estate, when he or she is completely omitted from the will or receives something lesser in the will. The spouse’s elective share is equal to the greater of $50,000 or if the net estate is less than $50,000, 1/3 of the net estate.
For example, John and Martha are spouses with three children, Rachel, Ross, and Chandler. John died with a net estate of $100,000. In his will, he completely omitted all his heirs: Martha, Rachel, Ross, and Chandler. He left his entire estate to Michelle, his secretary in the office, who apparently was his good friend and confidant. Even if Martha was completely omitted from the will, Martha can exercise her elective right under EPTL § 5-1.1-A to receive $50,000. Martha can exercise this elective right to receive $50,000, even if she receives something in the will, for as long as that value is less than $50,000.
When the decedent dies with a will, the heirs (except for the spouse) generally do not have a right to the estate. However, these heirs, as necessary parties, have a right to notice of the petition to probate the will. These heirs can either waive and consent to the probate of the will, or they have the right to contest the will. When decedent dies with a will and the will is later on declared invalid by the court, the decedent is considered to have died intestate (without a will) and the decedent’s estate is distributed to his heirs. Thus, even if the heirs do not have a right to the estate when a decedent dies with a will, the heirs have a right to be notified of the probate proceedings to admit the will and the right to contest the will.
In the example above, even if John can completely disinherit his children, Rachel, Ross, and Chandler, Michelle cannot proceed with the probate of the will without notifying the spouse, Martha, and the children, Rachel, Ross, and Chandler, about the proceedings to admit the will. All of the heirs, Martha, Rachel, Ross, and Chandler, can contest the will, saying that John did not validly execute the will in accordance with New York laws, and John did not have testamentary capacity to execute the will because he had diminished mental capacity coupled with undue influence and/or coercion exerted by Michelle. If, despite the will contest, the will is later on declared valid by the court, the spouse, Martha, can still exercise her elective right as spouse to receive $50,000 of the net estate, leaving Michelle only with $50,000.
To conclude, heirs have a right to the estate if the decedent died without a will. If the decedent died with a will, the decedent’s will prevails as to who is the heir to the estate (except for the spouse who has an elective right under New York laws to always receive $50,000 or 1/3 of the net estate, if the net estate is less than $50,000).
If you are an heir wondering whether you have a right to the estate of your loved one, consult a lawyer immediately to know your rights. There are prescribed periods to appear before the court and contest a will, and it is important that your rights are represented in this regard. Should you need assistance, we, at the law offices of Albert Goodwin, are here for you. We have offices in New York, NY, Brooklyn, NY and Queens, NY. You can call us at 718-509-9774 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.