What is a kinship hearing?

What is a kinship hearing?

May 5, 2022

It is estimated that as many as two out of three Americans will pass away without a valid will. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from a fear of discussing one’s own death, to an assumption a person has plenty of time left to plan, to those who think they simply don’t need one. Unfortunately, it can cause serious consequences for the friends, family, and loved ones.

Before we dive into the main topic – kinship hearings – I will use this space as a reminder: you need a will! It doesn’t have to be overly onerous, but it should be valid under the law and accurately reflect your wishes.

If an individual dies without a will in New York State, they are said to have died “intestate.” In essence, that means New York State law dictates how the estate is distributed. Generally, New York State intestacy rules provide that a decedent’s assets will be distributed among a surviving spouse and children, or if none, then to their parents, siblings, or other blood relatives.

However, things may become a bit more complicated when a person who passes away without a will only had distant relatives. Someone who feels they are a rightful heir of the decedent may be able to make a claim to the estate. These individuals are sometimes called “alleged heirs,” or proposed “distributees” or “beneficiaries.” It can range from grandchildren, to nieces and nephews, to distant cousins. In such cases, a kinship hearing may be required to determine the rightful heirs to the estate.

A kinship hearing is a legal proceeding held in Surrogate’s Court and is run similarly to a trial. The burden of proof lies with the alleged heirs to prove their rightful place in the decedent’s biological family. The process can be challenging and costly in some cases. Working with an attorney who is experienced in wills and estate administration, and specifically kinship hearings, is important.

At Gross Shuman, we work with clients to present strong evidence to connect them as the closest blood relative to the decedent. This process includes gathering records such as birth certificates, death certificates, letters, photos, videos, and even social media posts to connect the alleged heir to the decedent. Sometimes it may be necessary to use a genealogist to help establish the family tree. At the hearing, we will present evidence and may call witnesses to prove our client is entitled to the assets of the estate.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel you are a rightful heir to an estate, you’ll want to know your rights and may have to be prepared to establish your rightful position in a kinship hearing.

Whether you need to update your estate plan, or your family member passed away without a will, our estate planning team is available to answer your questions and discuss your options. As unpleasant as it can be to discuss death and dying, we always recommend having those difficult conversations now to avoid additional challenges and hurdles later.

Carolyn DeVaughn is an attorney with Gross Shuman P.C. She focuses her practice in the area of estate planning. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at 716-854-4300 ext. 242.