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Can Your Family Have Access to Your E-Mail after Your Death?

Author: Bonnie Lawston

In today’s electronic world, the idea of property has changed dramatically. In the past, when you were putting together an estate plan, the only intangible property that might be a part of it was certain types of securities. Now, however, you can have e-mail accounts, online subscriptions, social media passwords and other digital assets. Recognizing the importance of digital property, the New York legislature recently enacted laws setting forth the rights of potential heirs to such property.

Can Your Family Have Access to Your E-Mail after Your Death?In Matter of Serrano, 2017 NY Slip Op 27200, (Sur. Ct., New York County, June 14, 2017), the court addressed the issue of whether the fiduciary of an estate had a statutory right to access to online  passwords and other digital data, so as to “inform friends of [the decedent’s] passing…and close any unfinished business.” The judge allowed disclosure of contacts and calendar information from the deceased’s Google account, but denied access to the content of the e-mails in the Google account, reasoning that the contacts were necessary for the administration of the estate. Under the recent New York law, the custodian of electronic records (here Google), can be required to disclose to the personal representative of an estate a “catalogue of electronic communications sent or received by a deceased user.” The statute defines “catalogue of electronic communications” to include only the identity of any person with who the deceased had an electronic communication, the time and date of that communication, and the e-mail address of that person.

In a more recent Surrogate Court opinion, a fiduciary’s request for access to the contents of a decedent’s Google account was denied. In Matter of White, 2017 NYLJ, October 3, 2017, at p. 25, the court expressed concern that allowing “unfettered access” to digital property had the potential to involve the unnecessary disclosure of sensitive or confidential information, unrelated to the administration of the estate. The court concluded that, when evaluating a request for access to digital data, there must be a balancing of interests—the interest of the fiduciary to properly administer the estate, and the interest of the deceased in his or her privacy. Accordingly, the court followed the precedent in Serrano, allowing disclosure of contact information only.

The estate administration process can be complex and confusing. It’s important to have a strong and knowledgeable lawyer to guide you through the process. Attorney Bonnie Lawston offers more than 20 years of experience to clients in Nassau County and Suffolk County.

Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston for all your Probate and Estate Administration matters. 

 To set up a free initial consultation, contact us by e-mail  or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700 for an appointment.

 

Surrogate Court Gives Lifetime Promise Priority Over Will

Surrogate Court Gives Lifetime Promise Priority Over Will

Author: Bonnie Lawston

Perhaps the most common way to transfer property upon death in the State of New York is through a valid will or trust.   What happens, though, if you’ve entered into a binding contract to transfer certain property to a specific beneficiary under you will, but the terms of the document convey it to someone else? Which document takes priority?

The Surrogate Court for Nassau County looked at this specific legal issue in Schwartz v. Bourque, 2017 NY Slip Op 31621 (U)(Sur. Ct., Nassau County, June 14, 2017), concluding that a person who enters into a valid contract to transfer property upon death may not subsequently agree to transfer the property to another person, either while still alive or in a will.

In the Schwartz case, the dispute centered on title to the real property where the decedent and two subsequent generations resided. Initially, the deceased (Mother) was the sole owner of the property, but executed an agreement in 1978 that allowed her daughter (Daughter) to live on the property for as long as she desired, provided she paid the “carrying charges” on the residence. The agreement also promised to convey full legal title to the Daughter in the Mother’s will.

The 1978 agreement was amended six years later, with the preparation and execution of a new agreement and a deed, immediately conveying a one-half interest in the property to the Daughter. In 2012, however, the Mother executed a new deed, attempting to transfer the remaining one-half interest in the property to her granddaughter (Granddaughter). The Daughter objected to the conveyance, arguing that it violated the 1978 agreement. The Granddaughter claimed that the 1984 agreement superseded the 1978 agreement and, because it contained no clause regarding the transfer of the property by will, that clause was no longer valid.

After reviewing the facts, the court ruled that a subsequent contract will only replace and render a prior contract void under one of two circumstances:

  • The subsequent contract contains specific language voiding or superseding the earlier agreement—the court found that it did not
  • The contracts covered exactly the same subject matter—the court found that they did not, as one made a promise of a testamentary disposition and the other did not

Because the Granddaughter could not show that the 1984 agreement superseded the 1978 agreement and revoked the promise to convey the property to the Daughter in the Mother’s will, the Granddaughter was not legally entitled to any interest in the property. Accordingly, the 2012 deed was not valid.

It’s obvious from the facts of this case that an estate matter can become extremely complicated. It’s critical that you have an experienced, knowledgeable and capable lawyer to protect your interests. Probate and Estate Administration Attorney Bonnie Lawston brings more than two decades of hands-on experience in estate litigation to clients across Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island, New York.

Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston for all your Probate and Estate Administration matters. 

At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we offer experienced estate litigation counsel to individuals across Suffolk County and Nassau County. Contact our office online  or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700, to set up a free initial consultation.

Court Limits Scope of Release Involving Estate and Trust Accounting

Law-Office-of-Bonnie-LawstonIt’s pretty common procedure for a fiduciary to a trust to obtain a release, with the objective of waiving the fiduciary’s obligation to provide an accounting of the assets of the estate and trust. A recent opinion from the Surrogate Court in New York County casts some doubt on the potential validity of such releases.

In Matter of Ingraham, NYLJ, June 16, 2017, at p. 28 (Sur. Ct., New York County), the court considered the validity of a receipt and release and ruled that it did not absolve the trustee from the legal responsibility to provide an accounting. In Ingraham, a successor trustee had filed a petition with the Surrogate Court asking that the former trustees submit an accounting. One trustee complied with the request, but the other trustee objected, citing both the language of the trust document, which she argued relieved her from any obligation to provide an accounting; and releases that had been signed and executed by the trust’s grantor and by the other trustee.

According to evidence entered during the proceeding, the document signed by the grantor released the trustee from “any and all claims related in any way to her role as trustee,” other than claims arising as a result of fraud or willful misconduct. The document also included a provision waiving the right to a formal accounting of the trust. The other trustee had executed a similar release.

The court, however, found that that trustee could not use the release to avoid the duty to provide an accounting, citing two specific reasons:

  • The release specifically reserves the right to seek relief if there are allegations of willful misconduct or fraud
  • The duty to provide an accounting is a fundamental aspect of any fiduciary relation, an essential part of a trustee’s duty

The court also concluded that, even if the released waived the grantor’s right to an accounting, it was not legally binding on the other trustee, successor trustees and trust beneficiaries. Furthermore, the court rejected the argument that the trust document waived the requirement that trustees provide an accounting, concluding that the trust document only waived the obligation to provide periodic accountings, not the requirement that there be a final accounting.

When you’re involved in an estate or trust administration dispute, it’s essential that you have knowledgeable, skilled and experienced legal representation. Estate and Probate Attorney Bonnie Lawston has protected the rights of individuals in trust and estate matters on Long Island for more than 20 years.

Contact Probate and Estate Administration Attorney Bonnie Lawston for all your Probate and Estate Administration matters. 

 

What Happens If a Beneficiary is also a Witness to a Will?

Author: Bonnie Lawston

Under New York law, a valid will must contain the signatures of two witnesses. There are no requirements regarding the capacity of the witnesses. The testator (person executing the will) must sign in the presence of the witnesses, but they need not sign in each other’s presence. There’s also nothing that prohibits you from having a family member as a witness to your will, but there can be consequences.

Under New York law, a witness who has also has an interest in the estate is known as an “interested witness.” The fact that the will was witnessed by an interested witness does not invalidate the will, but it will render any benefit to the interested witness in the will void. Accordingly, any conveyance of property to an interested witness under a will, even if it’s part of a residuary estate, will be ineffective and will be returned to the estate, to be divided among other beneficiaries.

What Happens If a Beneficiary is also a Witness to a Will?

The “interested witness” rule, however, can apply to more than just property received. Consider the facts in Matter of the Estate of Cynthia R. Wu. In that case, the deceased had a provision in her will that called for estate and inheritance taxes to be paid as debts of the estate, rather than by beneficiaries out of their pro rata share of the estate. The deceased’s brother, the named beneficiary of two life insurance policies owned by the decedent, had also been a witness to the decedent’s will. The court concluded that, because the brother was an interested witness, he was not entitled to the benefit of having the estate taxes paid out of the estate. Instead, the court ordered him to pay his pro rata share of the estate taxes out of the death benefit proceeds.

Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston

At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we focus our estate administration practice on estates subject to probate in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island. Contact our office online or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700) to set up a free initial consultation.

Matter of Van Patten—Representation by Counsel

Author: Bonnie Lawston

If I am an executor, administrator or trustee, do I need an attorney and who pays for it? Why spend the money? 

The answer is that you should. Since the duties of a fiduciary involve actions that required legal counsel, any non-attorney executor (or fiduciary) who personally handle all estate matters (without retaining counsel) has engaged in the unlawful practice of law.

Matter of Van Patten—Representation by Counsel

One of the fundamental functions of a last will and testament is to name an executor, the person designated to oversee the orderly distribution of the assets of the estate. Though there are clearly situations where it’s essential for the executor to retain legal counsel to settle the estate in the probate court, there can also be situations where the executor might find it problematic or perhaps even unnecessary to hire a lawyer to probate a will. The estate may lack the resources to pay legal counsel. An important question, then, is whether an executor can handle all the duties required to probate an estate without hiring legal counsel.

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The executor in Van Patten challenged the ruling, arguing that she was the only beneficiary of the estate, so she was essentially the acting in her own interests. The court disagreed, finding that she had a responsibility to creditors of the estate as well. The court then ordered the executor to hire legal counsel or risk have the estate’s objections to the trust accounting dismissed.

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Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston

At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we focus our estate administration practice on estates subject to probate in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island. Contact our office online or call us at (631)425-7299 or 24/7 at (855)479-4700 to set up a free initial consultation.

An Executor’s Fiduciary Duty to Determine Fair Market Value of Property

Author: Bonnie Lawston

Under the estate laws in New York, a person named in a will as an executor has certain “fiduciary duties.” A fiduciary duty is essentially the requirement to act in the best interest of another party. The fiduciary duty owed by an executor is the duty to act in the best interests of the estate and all beneficiaries to the estate. The fiduciary duty imposed on an executor requires that the executor always put the interests of the estate above his or her own self interests.

In addition, though, an executor has a duty to find and manage the assets of the estate in the best interests of the estate and, ultimately, the beneficiaries. That typically includes taking “reasonable” steps to preserve or maximize the value of estate assets. A 2014 opinion in the Surrogate’s Court in Kings County addressed that specific issue.

In Matter of Mahler, 2009-1485/B, Richard Mahler was the named executor of the estate of Margaret Van Cortlandt Billmyer. Among the estate’s assets was real property, which Mahler contracted to sell to a personal acquaintance for the purchase price of $670,000. Three days after the closing on the sale of the property, the buyer, Basile, sold the property for $1.3 million.

Adelphi University, an heir to the estate, contested the accounting of the estate and the New York State Attorney General joined in the action, asking the court to find that Mahler had breached his duty to act in the best interests of the estate. The petitioners asked the court for $630,000 in damages—the difference between the sales price to Basile and Basile’s revenue three days later.

Fiduciary

In response to the legal action filed against him, Mahler contended that the property was run-down and needed extensive repairs. Adelphi and the Attorney General’s office alleged, however, that Mahler had failed to obtain any comps (prices for comparable properties in the area) and that he had taken no action to determine the actual fair market value of the real estate.

When questioned by the court, Mahler could provide no explanation for the difference in value over the three day period. The court concluded that the petitioners had met their burden to show that Mahler had breached his fiduciary duty to exercise diligence and care when selling the property. In its opinion, in fact, the court found Mahler “utterly devoid” or the required care to be exercised by a fiduciary. The court concluded that a $630,000 surcharge assessed against Mahler was appropriate.

The opinion rendered by the Surrogate’s Court demonstrates the importance of seeking experienced legal counsel when you’ve been named executor or administrator of an estate. At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we offer comprehensive counsel to executors, administrators and personal representatives, helping you avoid any potential fiduciary challenges.

Contact the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston

At the Law Office of Bonnie Lawston, we focus our estate administration practice on estates subject to probate in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island. Contact our office online or call us at 631-425-7299 or 24/7 at 855-479-4700 to set up a free initial consultation.  Our attorneys and staff can enforce the applicable laws of New York State and require the executor, administrator or trustee to maximize your inheritance and protect your rights.   Call us for a free consultation and deferred legal fees.