ESTATE SETTLEMENT PROCESS
If you are coming to us to help you with a conflict in an estate, please make an appointment here. We will need to discuss your situation in detail and see whether we are able to take your case. We handle many kinds of cases, and we fight for our clients zealously, but it’s important to make the right fit between your situation and our resources.
If someone has died and you expect to be the executor or administrator of the estate (or trustee, if the estate is organized in a trust), then we can definitely help you. Please make an appointment here, and bring the following items and information to the meeting if you can:
an original death certificate
the original signed will, if there is a will
information about the deceased person’s closest relatives
information about the deceased person’s assets
Please note that since we only have offices in New York, we can only handle work pertaining to people who lived at least part-time in New York at the time of their death or who had assets in New York. If your matter is based in another state, you may wish to do a search for an estate attorney in that state, and particularly in the county where the deceased person lived.
There Are Three Broad Phases of The Estate Settlement Process.
First, we need to arrange legal authority for the executor or administrator to manage the deceased person’s assets. (“Executor” is the term when there’s a will; “administrator” is the term when there’s no will. Executors, Administrators, and Trustees are all called “fiduciaries”.) Even when a person is named as the executor in the will, that role is not official until the Surrogate’s Court approves the will and issues documents to appoint the executor formally to the job. Gathering the materials for submission to the court can take a few weeks; getting the process through the court can take a few more weeks, or, sometimes, a few months. The time can vary a lot, depending on the exact details of the case.
It’s important to appreciate that courts are very slow-moving bureaucracies. The time required for any action is very unpredictable. But we do this work every day and we check on all our matters very regularly, in order to give you the best results possible.
The second phase begins once the fiduciary is appointed. He or she can then gather the estate’s property. Generally speaking, the goal is to liquidate all assets and deposit them in an estate account. From the estate account, any debts or expenses can be paid. And after all obligations are settled – and after a legally mandated 7-month period has passed to ensure full payment to creditors – then the estate can be distributed.
The final stage, after all the assets have been marshaled, is to prepare an accounting, which explains all the estate’s transactions to the beneficiaries, and to deliver the bequests. Final distributions to beneficiaries must be documented with receipt-and-release agreements, to protect the fiduciary from liability.
We will prepare all the formal documents for you through each stage of the process, and will also see to it that any other required tasks – filing taxes, selling a house, negotiating with relatives – are settled responsibly and in a timely manner.
How Long Does All of This Take?
There are so many variables that there’s no clear answer to this question. A straightforward estate can be settled, start to finish, in perhaps three months. An estate organized in a trust can sometimes be settled in just a few weeks. But various complexities can easily extend the process to a year or even multiple years. We will always do our best to give you a realistic sense of what process is required, and how far along we are.
The essential functions of an executor are to gather the assets of the decedent, liquidate them as necessary, pay any bills or debts of the decedent, and then distribute the final proceeds to the beneficiaries. This is all conceptually quite simple, and it can be relatively straightforward. There can also be complexities involved with any of these steps and in the overall management of the estate settlement process.
Who are Distributees?
A Distributee, sometimes referred to as "heir-at-law" or "next-of-kin", is your legal heir that will inherit your estate, by law, if you do not have a will. If the deceased person does have a will, then when you probate that will, you are required to give notice to a decedent's distributees. Under New York Law, distributees are as follows:
Spouse and children. If a decedent leaves a spouse and children, the spouse and children are considered distributees. However, if there is only a spouse and no children, the spouse is the sole distributee. Conversely, if there are children and no spouse, the children are the distributees.
Siblings and issue of pre-deceased siblings, if any (nieces and nephews)
Grandparents and issue of predeceased grandparents (1st cousins)
Great-grandparents and issue of predeceased great-grandparents (1st cousins once removed)
This chart illustrates the order of distributees under New York law.