By Jason Stern
As a NY kinship lawyer with two decades of NY estate law experience I can tell you kinship cases are some of the most complicated estate cases. In NY and most other jurisdictions, whenever someone passes away without both a will or immediate next of kin, the estate becomes a kinship case. Normally, the NY kinship estate begins when family does not claim the decedent’s remains for burial from the county medical examiner’s office for an extended period of time. At some point the public administrator will get involved by being appointed administrator in the within estate. Once appointed the public administrator will begin administering the NY estate by marshalling assets and identifying any and all extended family or next of kin.
The next step for the public administrator once all assets are made liquid is to file their judicial accounting by serving all potential heirs. A copy of the public administrator’s accounting is served on each party who is cited to come to court and prove their relation to decedent. As a distributee of a NY kinship estate, each potential heir must retain an attorney to first close their class by establishing that there are no potential heirs closer in relation to the decedent and secondly by identify all surviving heirs within their class. The process of proving kinship in a NY estate is a long, tedious path not unlike completing a very large puzzle. Occasionally NY kinship cases will hit road blocks without any path to success. In such cases where the trail goes cold, the proceeds of the NY kinship estate are deposited within the State of New York Comptroller’s Office indefinitely. However, thanks to NY kinship lawyers who spend months and years exhaustively combing through mountains of genealogical data, certified government documents and records spanning centuries, we go to great lengths to ensure this does not happen. Once the natural heirs are able to prove their relationship to the decedent and entitlement to the proceeds of their NY kinship estate the money is disbursed to the rightful heirs.
Estate of Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier, was born February 1, 1926 in New York City. Vivian was the natural daughter of Marie and Charles Maier and sister to brother Carl Maier. None of this was known to anyone other than herself on the date of her passing in 2009. In fact, on the date of her death no one knew very much about the Chicago native at all. Vivian was unmarried, never had children nor any relatives to speak of. Those who knew Vivian Maier only knew her as the whimsical Mary Poppins like nanny for wealthy families in the affluent Chicago suburbs of Illinois.
However, not long after Vivian’s death, investigators stumbled upon a storage unit where Vivian Maier kept her possessions. Once unearthed nobody was prepared for what followed. For within her storage unit a treasure trove of 150,000 negatives of film were discovered. Each negative artfully capturing life’s beauty and idiosyncrasy through the lens of her Rollieflex cameras. Perhaps the most important aspect of Vianian Maier’s photography is its raw and gritty allure that even the most untrained of eyes can identify with and appreciate. I myself, a NY estate lawyer with no background in art or photography became captivated by the ostensible truth in her photography and found myself wondering why this person did not share her work with the world while she was still alive? Perhaps we will never know.
But it did not take long for the rest of the art world to realize the profound legacy of Vivian Maier’s life’s work which was about to make her famous posthumously. To make matters more interesting investigators realized the copyrights to Vivian Maier’s photographs would be valuable, extremely valuable. Thereby immediately upon its discovery the negatives themselves were sold to real estate broker and art enthusiast John Maloof for a small sum of money, no apparent relationship to the Maloof family who owns the Sacramento Kings. While Maloof had bought possession of the art he still did not own their intellectual copyrights to cash in on Vivian Maier’s photography through commercial display and licensing which would now be worth millions if not tens of millions of dollars.
Unfortunately for John Maloof, it was becoming apparent that in order to exhibit Vivian Maier’s art as he initially intended he would need to identify Maier’s heirs and purchase those copyrights from her estate. In the interim the State of Illinois, where Vivian Maier was a resident and the site of her death, appointed the public administrator to handle the Maier Estate. Maloof attempted to capitalized on the public administrator’s appointment by brokering a deal to share the licensing royalties of Maier’s photography with the public administrator in exchange for the estate’s consent.
This arrangement worked for a period of time until a highly experienced kinship lawyer began tracking down Maier’s rightful heirs. After years of extensive genealogical research and exhaustive investigation, this experienced kinship lawyer was able to identify several first cousins of Maier throughout Austria, Hungary and France. However, there were stumbling blocks that held up this case for years, one of which was Vivian Maier’s brother Carl. In order to prove that Maier’s first cousins were her closest surviving relatives, the kinship lawyers would need to show the court what happened to Carl Maier. One major problem was there was no record of Carl Maier’s death. As such any money’s collected by the Cook County Public Administrator were deposited with their Department of Finance for the City of Chicago.
After additional heir hunting, the kinship lawyers and their alleged claimants of Vivian Maier are reopening this estate in light of new evidence. Said kinship lawyers went back to their drawing boards spending tens of thousands of dollars, sending investigators and genealogists to Europe uncovering any and all documents establishing every single identifiable member of Vivian Maier’s extended family. Included in their exhaustive investigation was the identity of Vivian’s grandparents, great grandparents, first cousins and even second cousins. The kinship lawyers were even able to prove that Vivian’s brother Carl Maier suffered from schizophrenia and died in a New Jersey mental institution in 1979.
Now ten years after her death, kinships lawyers should be able to recover the millions and millions of dollars in royalties the estate is owed on behalf of the rightful distributees of Vivian Maier. As a New York Kinship Lawyer, I cannot stress the value of having an attorney drafted will enough. The best way to handle a kinship case is to avoid one by having a will. However, if you or a loved one are the distributee of someone who died without a will and in need of legal counseling from an experienced New York Kinship Lawyer, please call one of our Estate Lawyers at the Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation. Our Queens estate lawyers have nearly 60 years of combined NY estate law experience handling these often treacherous NY kinship cases for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Richmond, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.