Articles and audio on New York Probate

E220 5 Ways to Secure the House When Someone Dies

E220 5 Ways to Secure the House When Someone Dies


When someone passes away and you are in charge, one of the top priorities is securing the house. In order to do this, you need to start with the following five steps.

1. Take care of the lights, mail, etc. to keep criminals from thinking the house is vacant.

Use automatic lights and don’t let mail or newspapers pile up on the porch. Just think about things you might do when going on a long vacation.

2. Change the locks…maybe.

In most cases, you want to change the locks in case someone else out there has an extra key. However, if there are tenants, you cannot change the lock without a court order in New York. If you do, you could be charged with a crime. If there is a possible tenant (even your sister or cousin), don’t change the locks.

3. Winterize the home.

This can mean different things in different parts of the country. Take into consideration things like pipes freezing or bursting or snow piling up on a roof. Make sure you don’t incur any additional damage based on the weather. Probate can take a long time, so start thinking about winterizing in the beginning.

4. Set a routine to check in on the home or ask a neighbor to check in.

If you live close, you could drive by often. If not, you can ask someone to routinely check on it for you. You want to make sure that the home is in good shape and there is no criminal activity.

5. If you live in New York – tell the doorman.

There could have been a dog sitter or cleaning person who has ongoing access to the apartment. The best person to stop that (a gatekeeper) is the doorman. Let him know that your loved one has passed away and there is to be no more plant watering, dog walking, or house cleaning until someone is appointed to do that.

To learn more, read my book “How Probate Works.”

E219 What Happens to Your Stuff Upon Death? Probate vs Non-Probate Assets

E219 What Happens to Your Stuff Upon Death?


It is helpful to know what happens to your probate vs. non-probate assets when thinking about your estate plan or your future inheritance. Do you really know how assets transfer upon your death? You may think there is a shortcut to use in your estate planning but read below to see what really happens.

First, there are in-court and out-of-court assets. In-court means that there is a type of asset that has to go through the probate court. Probate court is an extremely specific court that every county in the country has. Their job is to make sure that assets transfer properly. They make sure that the Will is correct and real, and that the proper heirs are notified. If someone dies with a Will, it’s called the probate process. If there is no Will, it is called the intestate process. By default, anything in your name or your name alone will go through probate.

What are the advantages of probate assets?

In general, the pros are related to a legal finality.

  1. By going through the probate process there are safeguards in place. The court has procedures in place to protect people who may not be able to protect themselves. For example, if you are survived by minors (children) who don’t have the maturity to look out for their own interests, the court can appoint a temporary guardian. If you are survived by an heir with special needs, there is a procedure in place to make sure their best interests are protected.
  2. Probate has processes to make sure final creditors and taxes are paid. If you close the estate properly, there won’t be lingering taxes. If you follow the probate procedure, you won’t be sued later by someone who comes after the estate. There is a 7-month statute of limitations against creditors once probate has taken place. If an executor is appointed on January 1st, any creditor (including the IRS) has 7 months from January 1st to submit their bill or claim. If they don’t do it during that time, they are out of luck.
  3. Probate is all in a centralized place. If someone lived and died in Manhattan, and the next living heir lives far away, he might not know where the decedent stored his/her Will. However, if he knows that the person died in Manhattan, he can contact that courthouse to see if someone set up an estate.

What are the drawbacks of probate?

The cons are generally related to dealing with a government entity.

  1. Probate process is slow. It can take from 9 months to a few years, and in some cases, even longer. It is long because there is a 7-month waiting period for creditors. There is a lot of paperwork to circulate among the heirs, executor, and court. Oftentimes these forms still need to be mailed, and sometimes these documents even have to be notarized. If multiple heirs have to get papers notarized, it can cause a lot of delay and friction. The process of using paper and wet signatures is unfortunately antiquated.
  2. Another drawback are costs. You’ll need to pay court fees, attorney fees, accounting fees, Executor commissions, etc. All these things added up can be tens of thousands of dollars.
  3. Probate is public. If you are a celebrity or a very private person, maybe having your private affairs accessible by the public is not desirable. For example, if you are in New Jersey, you can pull up James Gandolfini’s Will because his estate went through probate. This is also true for Prince and Frank Sinatra. If public access bothers you, then you may want to consider a non-probate method when planning your estate.

Examples of Non-Probate Assets

Probate means you have to go through court. The other option is having non-probate assets. These assets are anything with a named beneficiary or a named/joint owner. One example is life insurance. A life insurance company, for example, might require the beneficiary to turn in a claim form and death certificate in order to receive the money. This is a good thing to set up so there is some cash available while doing the rest of the probate.

Other examples of non-probate accounts are IRAs, retirement accounts, 401(k)s. There are tax benefits for naming your spouse or children as beneficiaries on IRAs and 401(k)s (talk to your tax advisor!).

If you are joint owners of real estate, the survivor automatically owns the whole thing. For example, a husband and wife own a condo in Manhattan. Husband dies, and the wife immediately owns 100% of the condo.

Even bank accounts can be set up as non-probatable assets. You can add a joint owner or use another method such as ITF (in trust for, TOD (transfer on death), POD (paid on death), Totten trust, and many other options.

Trusts are also non-probate assets. These can be revocable, living trusts, or grantor trusts. They act as a wrapper that you put around your assets so that they are no longer owned by you. Rather, they are owned by a trust with its own instructions with what happens when you pass away. These are used to avoid probate court.

You Can Change Your Assets from Probate to Non-Probate Anytime

Let’s’ say that I bought a house before I got married, and it is my name alone. Then I can update the deed to add my wife after we married. I can add my wife easily to a bank account, etc.

Beware: Non-Probate Assets Override Wills

This is extremely important to understand. Let’s say my wife and I have our first child and I go through all of our accounts and name the baby as the secondary beneficiary. Then we have more kids and I forget about the beneficiary designations. Now that I have a big family, I decide to have a Will drafted to leave everything to my wife. If she dies, then I leave everything to my kids. However, the Will only controls anything that comes through probate. So, those beneficiary designations naming my first child will not go through my estate. Then my other kids get nothing from those accounts, even though I named them in the Will. This happens all the time – people forget!

Making Everything Non-Probate is NOT Estate Planning

You might think that making everything non-probate will save time and money. Don’t do that. Here’s why: people forget! Your monthly bank statements do not list your beneficiaries; there are no reminders for updating! Unless you are one of the few conscientious people who remember to update all account beneficiaries, there will be something that doesn’t match your intentions when you die.

For example, Kurt was in love with Jasmine. They weren’t married, but Kurt added Jasmine as beneficiary to his savings account. Unfortunately, Kurt and Jasmine separated. Decades later, Kurt got married and had a daughter. He had a very long, fulfilling life and all the while he maintained that bank account. When he passed, his daughter was going through the estate assets and had to find out why someone named Jasmine was getting all that money!

Hopefully, my examples have been helpful to you in your estate planning or in administering a loved one’s estate. Please check out my book, “How Probate Works,” which covers this and a lot of other topics.

E217 Executor Dies During Probate

E217 Executor Dies During Probate


What happens if the executor dies during probate? It depends on how far along you are in the probate process.

Probate Court Process Just Started

If no one has been officially appointed yet, you either restart the court process or amend your original papers.
Probate court process just started
For example, Matt’s dad died and his mom hired a lawyer to start probate to appoint her as executor. But before it was finalized, she passed away. The court allowed Matt to amend his mom’s papers to name him as executor instead. This saved Matt a couple of weeks in the process, rather than starting over from scratch.

What Does Administrator DBN Mean?

If the executor has already been appointed, then you must ask the court to appoint a new executor. Unfortunately, getting the administrator de bonis non (dbn) swapped in is about as time consuming and complex as getting original letters.
What does administrator dbn mean?
The Latin term de bonis non administratis means, “goods not yet administered.” Once appointed, the administrator dbn is substantially the same as any other executor.

When Estate Is Almost Complete

If the executor has already gathered the assets, completed tax returns, and only accounting is left, the court may allow the executor’s executor to close the estate.
When estate is almost complete
Let’s say that Matt’s mom did almost all of the work and right before her husband’s estate was done, she passed away. Matt is his mom’s executor. As his mom’s executor, he can come in and finish up the accounting as the executor of the executor. This is a niche situation that the court allows when there is almost nothing left to do for the estate. But most of the time, the court will demand that an administrator be appointed.

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E215 What Happens if You Delay Probate

E215 What Happens if You Delay Probate?


A recent example of headaches and costs if you delay probate: Lou’s mom died owning a co-op apartment in New York. Since there was no mortgage, Lou and his sisters didn’t think there was any rush to deal with it. More than a year passed, and the co-op wanted clarity on who the legal owner is. Lou and his sisters each took turns saying they’d handle it, then dropped the ball. Finally, the co-op got tired of waiting and took action.

Co-op Foreclosures in NYC

Co-op foreclosures in nyc

The co-op began a foreclosure proceeding. Condo and co-op foreclosures aren’t just for missed mortgage payments. Foreclosures are also for missed maintenance payments and to clear the title. In this case, the co-op board doesn’t necessarily want the money. They want control so that they can put the apartment on the market and sell as they see fit.

The proceeds from the sale would ultimately go to Lou and his siblings, but they would have no control over the process. And, the co-op’s legal fees will get paid from the sale proceeds.

Someone Else Will Probate

The co-op doesn’t want to be the administrator of someone’s estate. So, the co-op asked the court to name the Public Administrator (PA) to be the executor for Lou’s mom’s estate.

Someone else will probate

As we’ve discussed before, you don’t want the PA in charge of your estate. The PA may be competent, but they are probably not the best fit for your needs in estate administration.

Now that the co-op asked the court to appoint the PA, Lou can’t simply ask the court to become the executor instead. Now Lou and his sisters must fight off the PA (and the PA’s legal fees) if they want to keep control of their mom’s estate.

How Long Do You Have To File Probate After Death

There is no official rule or deadline for how long you have to file after death. Maybe after three months you are still paralyzed by your loved one’s death that you weren’t ready to move forward. Maybe by six months you are overwhelmed in trying to find a lawyer. But the court will start losing sympathy for you after about a year. The court understands that you need time to grieve, but getting started sooner is better.

How long do you have to file probate after death

Of course, Lou’s example is not the only way delaying probate can cause problems. Start talking to an attorney as soon as possible to understand the process. If you reach out to an attorney, they will not sit on your case for a year. They and their team will start working on the process while you are grieving.

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E212 How Does Probate Court Know Who to Notify?


After we published When Does the Executor Tell the Beneficiaries, many listeners and clients have asked: how does the court know who to notify?

Great question; the answer depends on who the heirs are.

If survived by many heirs

If the person who passed is survived by many heirs, the court relies on a system of checks and balances. The court sort of assumes that one of the other heirs will step up and say something is something is out of whack.

If survived by many heirs

For example, let’s say that there are actually seven nieces and nephews, but only six people have signed off on the court papers. The assumption is that one of them would mention the missing seventh person. The court will likely rely on the fact that the family members will keep each other in check.

If survived by one close heir

If survived by one close heir

Perhaps the person who passed is survived by only one heir, such as a sole spouse or an only adult child. The court needs an “affidavit of heirship” or “family tree affidavit.” This is a document that someone else must sign, swearing under oath that this is how the family tree looks. The person who signs the family tree affidavit can’t be the sole surviving spouse or child, or the sole heir’s spouse or child. So, who’s left? Usually you can use another relative (who doesn’t inherit), a longtime friend, or clergy.

If survived by distant heirs

If survived by distant heirs

“Distant heirs” can mean a couple different things. Your situation falls into this category if the family tree heirs involve first cousins or similar. It’s easy enough to prove that the person who passed had five children. But, once there are a certain number of distant heirs, the court needs proof of relationships. The court may require a genealogy report to prove complicated relationships. It is easier for the court to understand the family tree when it’s laid out on paper. In addition to the professionally verified genealogy report, the court may require a court-appointed third-party (usually the public administrator) to review and confirm the family tree. It is another method of checks and balances to make sure one side of cousins isn’t doing something to the exclusion of others.

In conclusion, you can’t go to the court to simply tell them who you are and get the estate moving. There are steps in place to keep people from doing so.

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E209 Do Tenants in Common Need Probate_

E209 Do Tenants in Common Need Probate?


In a recent case, Liz’s dad had bought a co-op with his girlfriend. Liz’s dad broke up with his girlfriend but continued to co-own the apartment as “tenants-in-common.” Liz’s dad passed away, so what happens to the co-op now?

What Happens When a Tenant in Common Dies?

What happens when a tenant in common dies?

Unless there is a specific percentage for the tenants in common, the property divides equally.

If they had owned as “joint tenants” instead of “tenants-in-common,” then the girlfriend would become sole owner. But, the co-op shares certificate states “tenants in common.” So the girlfriend is a half owner, and Liz’s dad’s estate is now a half owner.

Is Probate Required for Tenants in Common?

Is Probate Required for Tenants in Common?

The short answer is yes. Liz and her siblings must probate their dad’s estate to inherit their half share of the co-op. Right now, Liz and her siblings must appoint an executor who has legal authority to conduct business for the estate. A court-appointed executor has the right to enter the premises, to gain information from the co-op, and eventually to sell the property.

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E207 Hire a Professional Executor for your Insolvent Estate

E207 Hire a Professional Executor for Your Insolvent Estate


Going through probate is a grueling 1-to-2-year process. Would you want to go through all that if you don’t even get anything out of it?

If you think the estate may be insolvent, consider hiring a professional executor.

What’s an Insolvent Estate?

What’s an insolvent estate?

An insolvent estate is when the decedent’s debts are greater than the assets. For example, the mortgage, credit card debt, and medical bills are greater than the value of the house and bank accounts.

There are also situations where the estate is close to being insolvent and you don’t realize it. Examples of this are Medicare clawback and unseen taxes. If you received medical care paid for by the government, the government will want the money back when you die. This could leave your estate with a large bill. Additionally, the IRS will look over your taxes carefully to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

Who Must Probate the Estate?

Who must probate the estate?

Many family members and heirs ask: am I required to be executor? The answer is no! You can decline or not act at all. Although, some may feel like they are dishonoring their deceased loved one by leaving the estate as a mess.

If you think the decedent is close to having an insolvent estate, you have options.

One not-so-great option is to let the state take over. There’s a state office (sort of like the public defender, but called a public administrator) that can step in. But, the interest in the estate and the incentives might not be the same as a person who you hire to help.

Instead, Hire a Professional Executor for the Estate

Instead, hire a professional executor for the estate

A better option is hiring a professional executor. You won’t have to do the stressful work yourself and you don’t have to feel bad about abandoning your loved one’s estate to the public administrator.

Even if the estate is NOT insolvent, you now have a relationship with the hired executor. This helps to make sure you get your inheritance. If the estate IS insolvent, then you can relax knowing that a professional is there to wrap up the estate.

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E205 A DIY Probate Story_ 4 Years Wasted

E205 A DIY Probate Story: 4 Years Wasted


This is “Sam’s” cautionary tale of trying to DIY his dad’s estate over four years, with zero progress. I like to call this a Sisyphus story. Sisyphus was a figure from Greek mythology whose punishment for eternity was to push a heavy stone up a hill, but right when he would get to the top, the stone would come sliding back down to the bottom for him to start over again for all eternity. That is what Sam has felt like for the past four years.

Sam’s story

Sam’s story

Sam’s dad died years ago in Europe, and Sam had court hearings in European probate courts where they were declared Sam and his siblings the heirs. But in Europe the probate process is much different than New York and the U.S., as there are no actual executors; the court just declares who are the heirs.

A couple of years later, the heirs discovered a U.S. bank account that they wanted to collect. Sam spent the next four years following bank instructions into a black hole. The bank would tell him to do one thing which led to months of playing liaison with the European courts and the U.S., only to be told that it was the wrong information. Each time this happened, Sam had to start all over again.

Finally, Sam called us, and we realized that we needed to start from scratch. Even after hiring us, Sam kept talking to the bank, which created more problems, mixed signals, and cross information.

Common Probate Mistakes

Common Probate Mistakes

The first common probate mistake is to rely on the bank’s “advice.” The bank is not an advisor. If anything, their incentives are to keep the money in the accounts.

The second common probate mistake is to underestimate the complexity of the situation. Many clients believe that they have a “simple” probate matter when they call our office for help. However, often after we ask them some preliminary questions, we find that it is actually a complex estate matter. Any time the estate deals with overseas factors, the situation is certainly more complex. This should have been a red flag for Sam.

Lastly, once an attorney is hired to handle the estate, it does not help for clients to continue to work on the estate. Clients may think that they can help reduce the amount of work or hourly cost if they do some of the probate work themselves. That is not how it works, and it could end up costing the client more to have the attorney fix the DIY mistakes.

Avoid Problems in Probate

Avoid Problems in Probate

The bankers are bureaucrats, not your advisors. If you are not getting headway immediately with a bank, get a professional to help you. An experienced probate attorney can navigate the bureaucratic banking problems.

Everyone thinks their case is “simple.” What someone thinks is simple is probably just the tip of the iceberg of complex problems or twists. How do you figure out if you truly have a simple case or a more complicated situation? Many excellent probate lawyers offer free consults, so use that consultation to find out. Lawyers offer free consultations for a reason! It helps the attorney and the client to see if they are a good fit for each other.

Lastly, when you hire someone, let them do their job!

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E203 Why You Need an Experienced Probate Lawyer

E203 Why You Need an Experienced Probate Lawyer


Linda spent six months working with a general lawyer (meaning someone who practiced personal injury, litigation, and a dash of probate on the side). There was not much progress in those six months, so Linda became frustrated and transferred the case to us. Sadly, we had to basically start from scratch, because the general lawyer did essentially nothing.

What causes probate delays? Bad lawyers

What causes probate delays?

In Linda’s situation, six months went by and it was as if nothing happened in her case. One of the reasons for the delayed probate was because the general lawyer did not know what preliminary Letters Testamentary were. An experienced probate lawyer would have noticed right away that Linda had a complicated probate and would have immediately filed for preliminary Letters Testamentary. If this had been filed immediately, Linda could’ve started “executor-ing” months ago.

Another reason probate can be delayed is drafting the Petition wrong. In Linda’s case, the general lawyer didn’t understand which family members must be notified, and therefore hadn’t even begun collecting their contact information.

Lastly, probate can be delayed because a general lawyer might not realize that the Will isn’t properly witnessed. (As a side note, this is a good reason to find an experienced attorney to draft your Will). Getting the correct witnessing on a decedent’s Will takes a lot of time, including tracking down the witnesses and having them sign affidavits. An experienced probate lawyer would notice the incorrect witnessing and get started on the correction process immediately.

As with any practice, if a lawyer does not have much experience in a certain area of law, he or she will probably miss important details and cause delays.

When a lawyer gives bad advice

When a lawyer gives bad advice

In Linda’s situation, her deceased relative owned an income-producing property, and the general lawyer told Linda not to collect rent anymore from the tenants! This led to non-payment and problems with the tenants, which will cost the estate more money to work out. Instead of listing the house on the market during the summer, this lawyer’s bad advice means that Linda now must winterize the house. With proper legal advice, the house could have been sold and done with before the cold. In summary, bad legal advice causes more stress and aggravation for the client.

How can you avoid all this? Shop around: Compare lawyers, call their office, and visit their websites. Make sure you’re working with an experienced probate lawyer from the beginning.

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E198 How to Change Your Probate Lawyer


You may be surprised to learn that we receive requests quite often from people who wish to change their probate lawyer. This was the exact situation one of our clients was facing recently. “Linda” started her probate case with another lawyer but realized along the way that he was not doing a good job. So, she reached out to us to take over the case. Here’s a look at how that works.

First, from our perspective, changing firms is a double-edge sword for a lawyer. As a rule of thumb, attorneys do not particularly like to take clients who have fired their previous attorney, as it could potentially be a red flag. On the other hand, if a client has been legitimately been deprived by a past attorney, they are grateful to have help and are a pleasure to work with, as is the case with Linda.

“Linda’s” story

Linda hired a “flat-fee” probate lawyer, which she thought was a great deal. However, after 9 months, Linda realized the lawyer had not done much. She also learned he didn’t really know what he was doing. For example, he hadn’t notified any heirs, collected any of the preliminary financial documents, or even gathered the basic information, which is typically what seasoned probate attorneys do right away. That led Linda to seek out another lawyer. Not only did she want a new lawyer to help her, but she also wanted to recoup as much of her “flat-fee” as possible. After all, not much had been done in 9 months.

How To Change Lawyers In The Middle Of A Case

How To Change Lawyers In The Middle Of A Case

If the previous lawyer hasn’t done any work on the case yet, then it is pretty easy. You can request they stop working and hire someone new. However, it gets more complicated if the attorney has spent any time on the case, which can include opening the case and corresponding with the court. If that’s the case, you will want to decide wisely – even if you can’t stand working with a particular attorney, if you are close to the finish line, it may be in the best interest of the case to see it through to the end. You will have to weigh it out.

How To Transfer Case From One Lawyer To Another

If the case has progressed to the point of filing documents with the court, the attorney who filed the documents is called the “Attorney of Record.” This means they are your official lawyer in the eyes of the court. If this is the case, you simply can’t change who represents you without the approval of the court. The court requires documentation to change attorneys at this point, essentially granting permission to change attorneys. This document must be signed by all parties, including yourself, the previous attorney, and the new attorney.

This puts you in a position of needing something from the previous attorney. Therefore, it’s not advisable to air your grievances or place a nasty phone call to their office (which is actually never a good idea). Even though you may be upset with them, you need that document to be signed.

One thing to keep in mind is that an attorney may elect to not sign the document until all invoices have been settled. You may have to pay the balances in order to move on. Although you may disagree with the invoice, in reality, if they have done the work, they should be paid. You have to weigh out if paying the outstanding balances, even though they didn’t do much work in your opinion, is worth it to change attorneys.

How To Transfer Case From One Lawyer To Another

Another reason to keep the peace is for the transition to be smooth. Your new attorney will need to get the files from the previous attorney. While some records can be obtained from the court, the previous attorney may have originals that is easier to get from them then to retrieve otherwise.

Are Lawyer Retainer Fees Refundable?

The short answer is technically yes, but in reality, they are usually not. In New York and in other states, attorneys are not allowed to charge non-refundable retainers. Although found in most attorney agreements, it is not usually permissible. Unless you change your mind the day after you send the check, most lawyers would have done enough work to have earned the retainer. For example, opening the file, reviewing the documents, gathering preliminary documents, calling the court, etc., adds up, which may use most if not all of the retainer. Lawyers are definitely entitled to fees for the work they do, even if you are not satisfied with their work.

Are Lawyer Retainer Fees Refundable?

If you are considering changing attorneys, you may find that the cost of keeping your current attorney outweighs starting over with a new attorney. Alternately, depending on the particular situation, it’s worth it to start over. As with any decision, weighing your options before making the switch is important.

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