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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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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E195 How to Sell a Deceased Person's House

E195 How to Sell A Deceased Person’s House

Quite often we are asked by family members and heirs what the process is to sell a deceased person’s home. It can be a complex and typically you should have a lawyer, but this blog shares a general understanding of how it works and what you can do to get started.

Did the Deceased Own Property?

While most people assume that the decedent owned their home, we have seen on many occasions that isn’t the case. For example, they may have been renting or owned the home jointly.

Did the Deceased Own Property?

The first thing you should do is look up the deed. This is actually easier than you think. Most counties have online searching capabilities, and a quick Google search will help you find the right place (the New York City system is called ACRIS). By pulling the deed, you will be able to confirm if the property was owned by the decedent, owned along with another person, or owned by someone else.

Two Names on Deed, One Person Dies

You may discovery that the decedent owned the property along with another person. If it’s a husband and wife, then you generally don’t need to do anything in terms of probate. The house will simply go to the wife.

Similarly, if it is a Joint Tennant deed, wherein two people are the joint owners. Using Jack and Jill for this example, then the house would be solely owned Jill if Jack dies, without having to go to probate court.

Lastly, the deed may say that Jack and Jill are the non-married owners or Tenants in Common. If that’s the case and Jack dies, then Jack’s estate still owns 50% of the property. You would have to go to probate court to deal with Jack’s half.

What Happens to House in Trust After Death?

Another scenario you may discover when you review the deed is that the house is owned by a trust. In this situation, you need a copy of Jack’s Trust to see what should happen to the property when he dies. You most likely can avoid probate court, depending on the trust wording.

Didn’t Own His Home

As we mentioned, it’s common for the person to not own their home at all. They could be a renter, be living in a home owned by a deceased grandparent, etc.

It’s important to pull the deed to figure out the ownership so you can move forward properly.

Do You Need Probate to Sell A House or Can You Sell a Deceased Person’s House Without Probate?

The short answer is yes, you can sell it without probate if the property was owned by a spouse or in a trust. However, if it’s in the decedent’s name alone, then you will need to go through the probate process.

Do You Need Probate to Sell A House?

PRO TIP: Some will try to tell you that technically you can sell without probate, with simply signing a document called an Affidavit of Heirship. Some fast-moving brokers may try to sell you on this idea. However, be aware that in most cases the title company may not accept it. The title company does not want the liability of ensuring that there are no issues with the estate and property. It’s too risky for them.

How to Get Access to House After Death

Another reason you may have to go through probate is to gain access to the house. In New York, if a decedent died at home, then the house is sealed with police tape. No one can enter the house until you have proof that you are entitled to be there. If the home is in a condo, co-op, or other managed building, they’ll want to see proof of authority before giving access. This proof comes from the court in the form of Letters of Testamentary.

Who Does Probate Protect?

Although you may think you want to avoid probate at all costs, that may not be the right concept. Probate is a process meant to protect you as an executor as well as the heirs. It safeguards all parties from being held liable for debts, such as the IRS and creditors that may come up down the road.

Considerations When Choosing an Executor

Specifically relating to selling a deceased person’s property, there are a few key points to keep in mind. See How to Choose an Executor, which digs deeper into how to choose an Executor.

Considerations When Choosing an Executor

Does Executor Have to Live in Same State?

Technically, no. You can be a US citizen and live outside of the state. But there are major drawbacks to not living in the state where the estate is probated.

Do I Have to Travel to New York for Probate?

Yes! Although as the executor it’s not technically required to live in New York, be aware that the executor will need to travel to New York. Typically, this is not just one trip. Even though we’re in 2020, some things still must be done in person, such as opening an estate bank account. So yes, living in New York is the best option.

When is an Estate Bond Required?

Bonds are sometimes required of the executor by the probate court. To get a bond, the executor will need excellent credit. When you are deicing about an executor, make sure it’s someone who will qualify. Those with financial issues and bankruptcies are not good candidates. They most likely will not get a bond.

How to Empty a House After a Death

When it comes to a deceased person’s home, not only do you have to empty the contents, but you may have to remove people that live there.

Eviction After Death of Owner

There are times that eviction may be necessary to remove a tenant. Commonly, once the owner dies, tenants feel they don’t need to pay, essentially living rent free. Therefore, eviction is necessary to be able to sell the home.
Eviction is a long process which takes on average 6 to 9 months. Therefore, you should get the ball rolling right away. If you wait for the tenants to do it on their own, you may add months or even years to the process.

Can an Heir Be Evicted?

Absolutely. Even if it’s family. While there are steps and complications, it can be done. And it may be necessary for it to be done.

Removing Items from House After Death

How to Empty a House After a Death

Lastly, you will need to clean out the items from the house, possibly disposing of the belongings. When serving as a professional executor, we take photos and videos of everything. After items are distributed according to the will, we send the photos to the heirs and ask what they would like. From there, we either have to find others that would like the items, donate them, or simply dispose of what is left.

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E191 3 Ways to Start Probate With No Upfront Fees

E191 3 Ways to Start Probate With No Upfront Fees


If you’ve done your research, you know that a good probate lawyer is not cheap. So how can you start your probate case even if you can’t pay now?

How much are probate attorney fees?

Lawyer fees for the simplest probate case start at $3,000. But probate is naturally messy, since is involves family, money, death, and high emotions.

So probate fees are usually more, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars!

source: https-::www.ft.com:content:14ea8e2a-0e47-11e7-a88c-50ba212dce4d

When to probate fees have to be paid?

Generally, lawyers require an upfront payment, or retainer, before starting work on your case. The upfront payment is usually a few thousand dollars, depending on the estimated total fees.

Many folks, understandably, just don’t have that money readily available, and ask “can probate fees be paid from the estate,” at the end?

Yes, but only under certain circumstance. Why? Because estates can be unpredictable, with many twists and turns. While you may feel certain that there’ll be plenty of funds to cover the lawyer fees, we’ve often seen:

  • Unexpected mortgages or debts
  • Unknown huge taxes due
  • Assets aren’t worth what you expected
  • Assets had a named beneficiary, and therefore not part of the estate

What to do if you can’t afford probate fees?

If you don’t have the cash on-hand to pay a lawyer’s retainer, here are some of your options to start your probate case now.

Deferred lawyer fee

Work with a lawyer who will accept a deferred fee (paid at the end, from the estate). If you’re able to find a lawyer to work with no upfront payment, expect some conditions.

For example, our office usually only accept deferred fee cases if you’ve also asked me to serve as your professional executor for the estate.

Contingent lawyer fee

Contingent fees are the ultimate “no win, no pay” arrangement. If your lawyer in unable to get your inheritance for you, then you don’t owe any fees. He only gets paid if he succeeds in getting your inheritance.

As you might expect, the trade-off is the fee will be higher than if you paid upfront: usually 1/3 of your recovered inheritance. But if you don’t have the cash to start your case otherwise, you’ll be glad this option even exists.

Contingent fee probate is limited to certain types of cases, such as:

  • Will contests
  • Proving kinship
  • Unknown assets

Request your free consultation

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E189 Can an Executor be Out-of-State?

E189 Can an Executor be Out-of-State?


No, it’s not a good idea to have an out-of-state executor. Although it’s technically legally allowed, in reality an out-of-state executor causes tons of problems.

Banking Problems

Opening the estate account

You probably think opening a bank account is a piece of cake. And you’d be right, if you were opening an account for yourself, personally.

bank kyc

But banking for an estate is a different animal. But an estate account has tougher “know your client” rules, and the executor often must meet with a banker in person, at a branch, to open an estate bank account.

Troubleshooting problems

When you have a problem with your personal bank account, these days you have limitless customer support options. Website, email, live chat, tweets, or call or walk in.

But with estates, you usually must walk into a branch and speak with a banker to get that missing statement or re-issue that 1099. And that can be a pain for an out-of-state executor.

Selling Real Estate

Clean out

Yes, cleaning out the home or apartment is part of the executor’s duties. For an out-of-state executor, this can mean several trips in and out of New York to supervise the clean out.

Closing

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New York is one of the few states where most real estate closings are in-person, with all parties sitting around a table for a few hours.

Yes, it’s sometimes possible to close with an out-of-state executor by signing and FedEx-ing the documents. But if any problems popup (as they often do with estate sales), it’s better to close in-person, so the lawyers can troubleshoot any problems in realtime, and avoid an aborted closing.

Minor stuff (mail forward, etc.)

There are countless small executor tasks to get the home ready for sale. Forwarding the mail, small repairs, returning extra keys, conversations with the super, etc. All much easier to handle with a local, New York executor.

Travel restrictions

travel restrictions

Sometimes an executor simply cannot legally enter the US:

  • Unable to get a visa
  • Immigration problems
  • Quarantine or other travel restrictions

If any of these apply, the heirs may be better off hiring a New York professional executor, rather than a non-New York person.

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How to Probate a Will Out-of-State with Maureen Pritchard

Anthony shares the mic with his friend, Maureen Pritchard, a probate and estate attorney. Estates are always an issue to families of a decedent, and to clear things up in this area, Maureen shares her expertise with us. Listen as she answers common questions regarding probate and the decedent’s estate.