End of Life Planning

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If you do not leave a will, when you die your estate (meaning all of your money, possessions, assets, and real property that you own by yourself) will be distributed to certain family members in a specific order according to New York law.  (Note: Any property you own that is located outside of New York, such as houses or land in other states or countries, may be distributed according to other laws and may not follow the same rules as in New York.)

If you would like to choose the specific people to whom your estate will go, or if you would like to give specific amounts of money or items of property go to specific people, you can prepare a will.  In order to be valid, a will must follow certain rules and meet specific requirements, so you should speak to an attorney if you would like to prepare a will.

Before your money or property is distributed to your loved ones, your assets may be used to repay debts that you owed at the time of your death, for example – credit card bills or tax debt.  Depending on the value of your estate, certain federal or state estate taxes may also be paid out first.

Caution: If you are legally married when you die, your spouse may have a right to take some or even all of your estate, even if you and your spouse are separated and living separately.  This may be true even if you have prepared a will that does not include your spouse.  If you do not want your spouse to inherit any of your property, you should seek a divorce.


After you die, someone will have to be in charge of making sure that all of your assets get distributed as they should, including repaying debts.  If you have a will, this process is called probate.  You can choose who you would like to be in charge of probating your estate by naming an executor in your will.  If you do not have a will, this process is called administration and the person in charge is called an administrator.  An administrator is usually a relative.  The law sets out specific requirements and order of preference for who can act as administrator.  The executor or administrator will have to file certain paperwork with the Surrogate’s Court in order to begin this process. 

NOTE: If you have completed a power of attorney naming an agent who can act for you, the power of attorney will no longer be valid after you die.  At that point, the executor or administrator will be the legal representative of your estate.

For smaller estates (currently estates including $30,000 or less in personal property), probate or administration may be completed without formal court hearings.  Instead, the executor or administrator can complete forms online or by submitting paperwork to the court.  Larger estates will likely require proceedings before a judge at the Surrogate’s Court.


You should discuss any specific wishes or concerns for your funeral and burial arrangements with the relatives or friends who you think will be making the arrangements.  Wishes regarding funerals and burials may be included in a will if you prepare one, but because these arrangements may be made before your will is located, it is best to be sure that your loved ones are aware of your wishes.

If you have any questions and you live in New York City, please call us at 212.766.4522, Ext 150.

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