Estate Administration

Estate administration begins the moment a person dies and includes the following:

  • To preserve assets, banks will seal safe deposit boxes; police may have sealed the decedent’s home. Someone will have to file the proper petitions to have them unsealed;
  • A responsible person must make funeral arrangements; a death certificate must be filed and copies obtained; and the body must be taken care of by burial, cremation, or as otherwise directed by the person who died (called “the decedent”);
  • The Executor is responsible for probating the decedent’s will, after which he must locate the assets of the estate, file an inventory with the probate court, pay outstanding debts, file the estate tax return and distribute remaining assets to heirs or other people designated by the decedent in the will. If the decedent died intestate, (i.e., without a will), the probate court will appoint an Administrator to settle the estate.

Estate administration can last from several months to several years, depending on the complexity of the estate and whether there are any disputes, such as a will contest.

What are my main legal concerns when a family member dies?

The number of details involved in estate administration is vast. They include:

  • Where is the will? Where is the deed to the burial plot?
    Often, a decedent will have kept his will and other important estate administration papers (deed to a burial plot; directive as to manner of disposition of body) in a safe deposit box. However, when a bank learns that a person has died, the bank is required to seal the safe deposit box. The law requires the police to seal the home if a person dies there. If the will and other important papers are in a sealed location, you have to get the location unsealed to proceed with estate administration:

    • If you rented the safe deposit box jointly with the decedent, the bank must let you, under bank supervision, examine the contents of the box and make copies of important papers;
    • If you are not a joint renter of the safe deposit box, or if the documents are in a sealed home, you can file a petition in Surrogate’s Court to obtain an order to have the safe deposit box and home unsealed, so you can get access to a will or other documents critical to estate administration.

What happens to the decedent’s body?

New York Public Health Law 4201 directs the disposition of remains and establishes who has responsibility for that process. If the decedent has made a written appointment selecting an agent to dispose of his or her remains, the person designated will have the responsibility. In the absence of such a document, the law imposes responsibility in the following order: surviving spouse or domestic partner and then moving on to adult children, surviving parents, surviving siblings, a guardian appointed by court order, all the way to close friends and beyond.

How do you obtain a death certificate?

A doctor or medical examiner will fill out one section of a death certificate, after which the funeral director will pick it up and fill out the remaining information with the help of family. The funeral director has 72 hours to file it, after which copies may be obtained from the New York State Department of Health (if you are in New York City, from the New York City Department of Mental Health & Hygiene). A spouse, parent or child of the decedent has a right to obtain a copy, and other persons who have a documented lawful right or claim, a documented medical need or an order for a copy from a New York State court may also obtain a copy.

I need help with estate administration:

  • Determine your interest in the matter.
  • Gather any relevant documents that might be important to your concern
  • Get in touch with an experienced estate and trust lawyer.

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

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