By Jason Stern
As a NY estate lawyer with more than two decades of experience litigating NY estates one of the most frequent questions I get involves the issue of common law marriages and the NY estate law. The issue being does New York State recognize common law marriages as valid? I’d be lying if I said there was a simple answer because there is no simple answer. The common law marriage and the NY estate law have a very strained and tenuous relationship.
Estate of Vic Henley
In April of 2020 NY comedian Vic Henley unexpectedly passed away from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 57. While Mr. Henley leaves behind no spouse or children he did have a long term girlfriend Ms. Nicki Hyland who he shared his Manhattan apartment with on the Upper East Side. Although the two allegedly had plans to wed they never did. While the two may have lived in the apartment together it was solely owned by Mr. Henley. This makes Mr. Henley’s mother, Gloria Klein his closest surviving heir and next of kin to inherit the entirety of his NY estate. Gloria Klein has since hired a NY estate lawyer and has been appointed the administrator of her son’s NY estate. Having died intestate, meaning without a will, Vic Henley’s NY estate goes to his next of kin through the process that is known as Administration. Had Vic Henley enlisted a NY estate lawyer to draft a NY will leaving his assets to his girlfriend, his estate would now pass to Ms. Hyland through the process of probate.
Ms. Hyland has also hired her own NY estate lawyer claiming entitlement to the late comedian’s 90th Street apartment as his common-law spouse. In her court papers Hyland’s NY estate lawyer argues the two were hoping to be married in the future and lived together, shared utility bills and a Netflix account. However none of these facts permit Ms. Hyland to inherit any portion of the comedian’s NY estate because the NY estate law has no provision for common-law marriage entitling her to the proceeds of the NY estate. If sharing a Netflix account with someone entitled them to inherit our NY estates I’m sure people would be more selective before sharing streaming services. But thankfully it does not.
Does NY ever recognize common-law marriages?
The short answer is rarely. Pursuant to the NY estate law, although abolished in New York, a common-law marriage properly contracted in a sister state or another country may be recognized within NYS as valid. Most NY estate lawyers themselves are surprised to learn of this loophole in the NY estate law which sometimes provides for the validity of common-law marriages from other jurisdictions. However the burden is on the party asserting the benefit to establish all of the requirements of the alleged marriage’s enforceability in the jurisdiction of origin and that inheritance rights would flow from said marriage.
For example as stated in the Estate of Garnold, 9 Misc.3d 427 (Erie Surr. Crt. 2003), the Surrogate’s Court denied a common-law spouse’s right to inherit where the husband was able to successfully establish that in Canada he and the decedent had entered into a valid common-law marriage pursuant to the statutory requirements of Ontario. This Court found that while the two may have entered into a valid common-law marriage in Canada, Canadian law does not afford inheritance rights to common-law spouses. Thus the common-law husband of the decedent could not inherit here because in Canada inheritance rights do not flow to common-law spouses. Therefore the surviving common-law husband, while recognized as the common-law spouse, was denied any portion of the decedent’s NY estate.
As in the above-mentioned case of comedian Vic Henley’s NY estate, his “common-law spouse’s” petition will be dismissed. Primarily because the couple mainly lived in NY and New York State does not have any legal mechanism to create common-law marriages. Any NY estate lawyer will tell you the best way to protect the people you care about after you are gone is to plan your NY estate by drafting a NY will. In your NY will, your NY estate lawyer will create a legally enforceable estate plan specifically directing who is to receive your NY inheritance. Additionally, in your NY will you get to choose the person you want to act as the executor of your NY estate, that is the person who will eventually administer your NY estate. Absent a NY will your next of kin will have standing to become the Administrator of your NY estate. In instances where there is more than one party eligible to act as the Administrator, in instances where the decedent may have had several children or siblings, this can often lead to infighting amongst the heirs to determine who will administer the NY estate. Ny estate litigation is often an expensive and lengthy proposition which should always be avoided when possible.
If you are thinking about drafting a NY will or asserting your rights to a loved one’s NY estate it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY estate lawyer. Feel free to call the NY estate lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NY estate lawyers have more than 60 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, and Dutchess.