Do I Need to Leave Any of My Estate Assets To my Surviving Spouse?

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Sally, a 73 year old lady was disinherited when her husband Bobby died after being married to Sally for 10 years. The marriage was a second marriage for both of them. Everything in Bobby’s will went to Bobby’s family from his previous marriage, and Sally was left with nothing. Does Sally have any rights to her decedent spouse’s assets? How can Sally protect herself?

The short answer is that most states have legislation in place so a legally married spouse cannot be completely disinherited (intentionally or unintentionally), but the surviving spouse must take timely action to claim this right. Estate Planning laws vary from state to state and are complex.  This article’s goal is to try and keep things simple and give the highlights so you know enough to ask questions and talk to an Estate Planning attorney for the specific options and details.

Under New York law, a surviving spouse is entitled to collect certain assets, even if the will leaves nothing to the surviving spouse. Among other smaller assets, New York State gives the surviving spouse the right to take the greater of 1/3 or $50,000 from the decedent’s spouse “net estate”. The law goes so far to even allow the surviving spouse to access their entitled elective share even when the decedent spouse used techniques to avoid probate and removed assets out of his/her estate via other manners called “testamentary substitutes.”

Keep in mind that even if the decedent spouse did not leave a will, although the decedent spouse’s assets pass under the state’s intestacy laws (laws put in place for when someone passes away without having written a will), the surviving spouse’s right of election still exists. If the spouse’s right of election would result in a greater inheritance than intestacy, the surviving spouse has the right to exercise it.

The surviving spouse has a choice of (i) accepting the provisions of the deceased spouse’s will (meaning – having been disinherited and not contesting this fact), or (ii) elect to receive their modern elective share and go against the will.  If a decedent spouse left nothing to the surviving spouse and the surviving spouse would like to contest the will, the surviving spouse will need to elect their right to the modern elective share by exercising/filing the proper paper work within six months of the Surrogate’s Court issuing letters testamentary (if there was a will) or letters of administration (if there was no will). If letters were not issued by the Surrogate’s Court, the surviving spouse has two years after decedent spouse’s death to make the election. If the right of election is allowed, a court can “claw-back” bequests left to other beneficiaries to satisfy the surviving spouse’s interest.

Certain situations and circumstance would disallow the surviving spouse from electing their right for their modern elective share. For example, if the surviving spouse is considered to have “abandoned” the predeceased spouse, the surviving spouse would be disqualified from making the election. In addition, a surviving spouse’s right to the modern elective share can be disallowed with a pre-existing written agreement between the spouses which waives this right.  Examples of such agreements are a pre-nuptial, post nuptial or separation agreement. In order for such types of agreements to be effective, the waiver of the spouse’s right to the modern elective share must be fully understood and agreed to by the waiving party. May we all merit living long, healthy and happy lives – amen.

 

The attorneys in the Corporate Practice Group and the Tax Practice Group at Yedid & Zeitoune have a combined 16 years of legal experience and are ready to assist you with all your corporate/tax needs.

 

Isaac Yedid, Esq. and Raymond Zeitoune, Esq.

 

Yedid & Zeitoune, PLLC

1172 Coney Island Avenue Brooklyn, New York 11230

Phone: (347) 461-9800          Fax: (718) 421-1695               Email: info@yzlawoffice.com

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I find this article a bit confusing.
    After a marriage of many years to one spouse and maybe many children and grandchildren, the husband may have chosen to leave all of his money to his first family, perhaps knowing his second wife and/or her children have assets as well.

    What should be stated in the article is that if the husband had wanted to decide about how his money should be distributed to his second wife and his children from the first marriage, HE should have been proactive about that.

  2. It may be nice that you bring out what the US law is, but I would have expected on a Chareidi website to bring down what the law would be according to the Torah and if it differs does דינא דמלכותא דינא come into play here? That would have been a much more valuable article. 🙁

  3. Law varies between states, and halacha is quite different (arguably under halacha the wife gets everything for a small estate, and very little of a large estate, but the children end up being responsible for her support – something that isn’t the case in American law where children often conspire to put elderly parents on welfare). And a clever lawyer can easily disinherit a wife under New York law by transferring the assets before death (the common issue for goyim -indeed “how to disinherit the wife and give everything to the mistress but keep control of the assets while doing so” is a typical challenge for law school students on exams).

  4. It should be noted that the secular law here is not consistent with halachah. However, there are halachic workarounds that have been developed and a good rabbi should be able to help to address the issues.