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Can the New York Surrogate’s Court Entertain an Estate Proceeding for Someone Who Died Long Ago?

{Read in 4 Minutes}  As a Trusts and Estates attorney, I frequently appear in the Surrogate’s Court.  The vast majority of the time, I am working on a matter related to the Estate of a decedent who has died recently — often within a month or two of their death. However, now and then, one must start a proceeding for someone who died decades ago. When might this happen? Here’s a common example:

Let’s say that Grandma owns a three-family house where Grandma resides with her adult children and their families until her death in 1972. 

Although her name is the only name on the deed to the property, the family continues living in the house — which is probably what Grandma would have wanted had she written a Will. However, no one bothers to probate Grandma’s Will or have an Administrator appointed for her Estate (if she died Intestate or without a Will). The family continues to live in the house, and then the next generation, Grandma’s two children, subsequently die in 2015.

Each of Grandma’s two adult children is survived by two children of their own, who are also now adults. Then what happens? The four grandchildren decide to sell the house. This may be because the house is no longer big enough to support four families if they have kids of their own. They might wish to relocate to another state. Or it might be that they simply can’t stand each other anymore and to avoid killing each other (and creating a bunch of new Estates for me!), they have decided to sell the house and part ways. 

What’s the problem? The house is still titled in the name of Grandma’s Estate. So, when the children go to sell the property, the potential purchaser will ask for someone to be appointed as the Executor of Grandma’s Estate so that someone can deed over the property to the new buyer at the closing table.

This actually happens more often than you might think. It’s not uncommon for family members to come in, decades after someone has died, and seek to have an Executor appointed for the original property owner. Previously, this simply wasn’t necessary in the example above because there was no prior need to sell the property. So, the family who continued to live there and pay real property taxes, homeowners insurance, etc., didn’t need to go to Court — but now someone needs to go to the Surrogate’s Court. Will the Court entertain such a proceeding from someone who died over 50 years ago?

Yes! The Surrogate’s Court will handle the affairs of all deceased New Yorkers, so long as there is some business to conduct, regardless of when they died. 

Granted, this may take a little bit more time than a “garden variety” probate proceeding, but it is certainly something that the Court has seen many times before. Be prepared to provide the names and dates of death of everyone in the family, trace out the family tree, and get consent from anyone who may object to the probate of the Will. The Court can appoint an Executor (or if all the Executors named in the Will are deceased, an Administrator c.t.a.) — usually one of the beneficiaries or members of the class of next-of-kin to serve as the fiduciary of the Estate. Everyone can then come together, sell the property, and receive the cash. For more information on this topic, please contact me.