In our last issue we discussed the inheritance rights of adopted children who later found biological family through DNA testing. With the increasing popularity of DNA testing, connecting with lost relatives is becoming easier. These connections can affect your own estate plan but also your obligations if you serve as the fiduciary of another’s estate. When someone dies, if they do not have a Last Will and Testament, or other testamentary instrument like a trust, their estate will be divided among their “next of kin,” the relatives who are, legally, their closest relations. Even when someone has established a valid Last Will and Testament, after death, their next of kin have a right to be notified about proceedings relating to the Will, regardless of whether they stand to inherit under the Will.
If someone learns of the existence of a sibling or relative, whether through DNA testing or otherwise, does this change their estate planning? The easy answer is that they are still able create an estate plan that reflects their wishes, which may or may not include the later discovered relative. However, if the later discovered relative is among the closest of their relatives, that relative would be entitled to notice if there were a proceeding relating to the Will and would be entitled to share in the estate if no Will exists.
Most people are unaware that, under New York law, half-siblings are treated the same as siblings of the whole blood. This means that if the parent you have in common with your half-sibling dies, you and your half-sibling have the same interest in that parent’s estate. Siblings of the whole blood or half blood who are the next of kin to someone who dies all share equally.
Although there are some requirements to establishing proof of the relationship, it generally does not matter whether the relative maintained contact with the deceased or had a relationship before death. If the kinship line can be established, the relative is still entitled to notice of the proceedings and can still inherit. If a fiduciary, the executor, administrator or trustee, is aware of possible relatives, they have an obligation to be forthcoming with the Court. The fiduciary must provide notice and an opportunity to the possible relative to prove the relationship he or she had to the deceased.
Finding more about ourselves and our family trees can be interesting and exciting. It can be helpful in piecing together our pasts and learning more about our roots and connections to one another. It also has an impact on our estate plans and the obligations fiduciaries have when administering estates. Berwitz & DiTata can help in understanding the rights of our relatives and what to do when we learn of new relatives.