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Q: What could happen to my assets –and my remains– if I die without a will?

Staten Island estate planning attorneys can give plenty of reasons why everyone should have an estate plan. You’ve probably even heard of some of them. Yet something may still be keeping you from taking action and getting your affairs in order or keeping them updated.

  • Common reasons why people put off having a Last Will and/or a Trust prepared include:
  • thinking they don’t have enough assets to need one
  • thinking they’re too young to need one
  • thinking their assets will go to the people they want to receive them
  • procrastinating for an event like marriage or children.

And underlying all of these reasons is the fairly universal and completely understandable feeling of queasiness– or downright nausea– over facing the reality of one’s inevitable death or potential disability.

Well…get over it. Because if the only things certain are death and taxes, then consulting with a skilled estate planning lawyer can put you in the best position to face both and provide a secure future and smoother transition for your family.

A comprehensive estate plan will not only include a Will and/or Trust that disposes of your assets after your death in the manner you wish, but generally includes other legal documents that protect you and your family in the event of you becoming disabled. Such documents often include powers of attorney and health care proxies allowing you to designate agents to handle your financial and medical affairs in the event you are incapacitated and unable to do so yourself. A Living Will allows you to express your wishes regarding your end-of-life decisions, such as your positions on “do not resuscitate”/“DNR” orders, feeding tubes, and other life-support or medical care matters.

Already have a will? It is not uncommon to need or want to revise an existing estate plan over the course of a lifetime as circumstances may change as a result of events such as marriages, divorces, births, adoptions, business dealings, and the death of others.

If the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve protected yourself and your loved ones in the event of your death or disability isn’t enough of a reason to get a Will, the possible scenarios of not having one might spur you to take action.

When you die without a will, you are considered to have died “intestate.” That means your property is distributed in accordance with the intestacy laws of the state in which you reside. It does not matter whether those are the people you want to leave any of your assets to or if the statutory shares are divided as you would have liked. Without a Will that names an intended executor and details how property should be distributed, survivors of the deceased must petition the court to be appointed administrator of the estate. Not only does this often result in delay and expense, but there could be a contest over who should be appointed the administrator. In some cases, the court will appoint a public administrator. And if you have minor children and have not designated legal guardians, you are leaving the decision of who your children will live with and be raised by up to the court.

And here’s a thought for those who think they don’t care what happens after they’re gone. If you’re a New York City resident and die here without a will and no relatives who would inherit under the intestacy statute can be found (or they won’t accept the responsibility) to handle your estate, a public administrator may be appointed to handle your estate–which includes your remains. Do you know where your body could go?

Sadly, your remains could wind up in a box on the morgue truck destined for burial in a massive trench with hundreds of other unclaimed bodies in a Potter’s Field on the otherwise uninhabited Hart Island. Many of the more than one million anonymous bodies that came to rest there arrived after first being used by medical or mortuary science students. Their unfortunate, undignified end was witnessed only by the grave-digging inmates from Riker’s Island. While the majority of the island’s “residents” are poor, people of means can also slip through the cracks an end up in the trench.

Unlike the other four New York City boroughs that cart their unclaimed dead to Hart Island, Staten Island “funeral directors, cemeteries, and casket companies” combined forces and enacted a program approximately four years ago to bypass the Potter’s Field burial system and give everyone a dignified burial. Sometimes, a long-lost relative could come looking someday. It’s just another thing that sets Staten Island part as a good place to live… and in some cases to die.

If you would like to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you and your family will be protected in the event of your disability or death, the estate planning attorneys at Merlino & Gonzalez can help you. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

From our office in Staten Island, we’ve been helping New Yorkers protect their assets from creditors, minimize their estate taxes, and ensure their estates pass quickly and efficiently to their intended beneficiaries since 2001.