What happens when you die without a will or any ascertainable next of kin? As a NY kinship lawyer practicing in Forest Hills, NY, I can tell you exactly what happens, you become a kinship estate. Normally when someone passes away in the State of New York they have a will and their estate is called testate or testamentary. In NY, testamentary estates usually proceed smoothly throughout the NY probate process absent any inconvenient will contests. For the most part, if the NY will or testamentary instrument was properly drafted and supervised by a NY estate lawyer, there would be no cause for concern. Absent a will, the NY estate falls into intestacy. This means an administrator will be appointed to determine succession, identifying the decedent’s next of kin in order to distribute estate proceeds.
When there is no will and heirs cannot be readily identified, where the decedent did not have a spouse or children, a kinship estate ensues. In such instances the Public Administrator shall be appointed to administer said estate pursuant to SCPA §1001 8(a). Once appointed all assets of the estate are liquidated and collected, the proceeds of which are withheld until a kinship trial of the evidence can be held determining who the rightful claimants of the estate are.
While one might think that NY kinship estates are a rare anomaly only involving small estates that is untrue. On the contrary, NY kinship estates are quite common and have comprised some of the largest fortunes in history.
Estate of Howard Hughes
Perhaps the most prolific innovator in aviation of the twentieth century, Howard Hughes founded Hughes aviation and personally set several air speed records. Hughes also signed countless government aerospace contracts with the United States Military making him one of the wealthiest industrialists who ever lived. Eventually Hughes went on to acquire Trans World Airlines, also known as TWA, a movie studio and several casinos in Las Vegas. In his later years, Hughes suffered from an extreme form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder becoming a reclusive eccentric and residing in the Penthouse of one of his Las Vegas Hotels. Hughes would keep his penthouse atop the Desert Inn Hotel completely darkened with the windows covered, often not leaving the confines of his apartment for years.
Howard Hughes passed away on April 5, 1976. Howard Hughes passed away without a genuine attorney drafted, supervised will or identifiable next of kin. Howard Hughes never married or fathered any children. It did not take long after his passing for no less than 40 phony wills and more than 500 distributees to surface including alleged wives and children of the late recluse each claiming title to his $1.5 billion dollar estate. In fact, it was not until 1981 where a jury in the trial of Howard Hughes’s kinship estate determined that he died with 5 paternal first cousins and 16 maternal first cousins who were to receive the $1.5 billion dollar kinship estate.
The estate lingered on for five long years through the kinship estate proceedings while each of the maternal and paternal cousins proved their status as distributees. One of the most difficult obstacles in this kinship estate involved the claims of three maternal cousins of Howard Hughes, who were the granddaughters of his uncle Rupert Hughes. Rupert had one alleged daughter, Elspeth Hughes with his wife whom he divorced in 1905. However it was alleged that Rupert’s wife had extramarital affairs with not one or two, but nine different suitors during the time of Elspeth’s conception. However according to NY kinship law if the parents of a child are married at the time of conception there is presumption that the child is the natural born child of the marriage. Furthermore, the jury found that Rupert Hughes had access to Elspeth’s mother for purposes of conception further legitimizing her as his daughter. At the end of the exhaustive seven-week jury trial Elspeth Hughes was determined to be the natural daughter of Howard Hughes’s uncle Rupert. As such Elspeth’s three children were deemed maternal first cousins of the decedent and entitled to collect their share of the $1.5 billion kinship estate.
In all, the Howard Hughes kinship estate lingered more than thirty years. Howard Hughes’s kinship estate was not fully distributed until 2010 when the last of Hughes’s holdings in a Las Vegas land development were sold off and distributed to his heirs. As a NY kinship lawyer handling these complicated cases involving monumental issues I can appreciate all the work that went into the Howard Hughes kinship estate. Most of the time NY kinship estates do not require three decades to distribute the proceeds but considering the size of Hughes’s fortune and complexity of his family tree it is understandable.
If you or someone you love is the heir of a decedent who passed away without a will or close surviving relatives, you may have rights under the NY kinship estate law. Feel free to call an experienced NY kinship lawyer at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates, at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation. Our Queens estate lawyers have nearly 45 years of combined NY estate law experience handling these often treacherous NY kinship cases for non-marital children in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Richmond, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.