The value of having a will is that the person who makes the will gets to determine how his or her estate is divided up when he where she dies. Wills can name people specifically, whether family or not, or can name people generally (i.e., “I’d like my estate to be divided equally among all my children”) so long as certain rules are followed at the time of creation. Many times there will not be a will when someone dies, in which case the State is left to determine how one’s estate is distributed. In that case, the State has a very specific order for whom to distribute the estate; certain family members are able to take the estate – in whole or in part – as determined by their level of kinship. Otherwise, an estate will “escheat” to the State. This distribution can become more complicated when there are no spouses, children or live relatives.
In In re Rosenthal, Sally Rosenthal passed away in February 2015 without a will, and was unmarried with no children. The appointed Administrators of Decedent’s Estate, which are those who have been authorized by the court to handle an estate, filed a claim to distribute her estate. Before the final accounting of Ms. Rosenthal’s estate was done, a genealogical search revealed that she did have living relatives when she died, though mostly second and second cousins once removed on her mother’s side. The Administrators wanted to have the estate distributed to these distant relatives and offered a certification as evidence that one of them was actually a cousin of Ms. Rosenthal.
However, the State has strict rules for how distribution of an estate takes place. Only those who are entitled under the law can take from an estate of someone who has passed, called a decedent. The order of taking in New Jersey is: 1) Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren; 2) Parents, siblings, nephews and nieces, grand nephews and nieces, and great grand nephews and nieces; and 3) grandparents, and so on, with each tier becoming more tangentially related to the decedent.
The Court in this case was ultimately unconvinced by the Administrators’ arguments and accompanying evidence. It found that the sworn statement provided was “nothing more than a self-serving attempt” to convince the court that the Rosenthal estate should go to him. It also found it unconvincing that the sworn statement said that it would be “unfair” if the Rosenthal estate went to the State of New Jersey rather than these relatives, and that Ms. Rosenthal would be “very disturbed” if she knew this was how her estate was being divided. The Court pointed to the lack of evidence that these individuals were actually her cousins; there was no adequate description nor identification of them as her cousins. It further held that the arguments made were contrary to state law and legislation regarding distribution of the estate.
Courts are required to read the law and apply it as is. The law applied, N.J.S.A. 3B:-19 (2018), bars those who are not close enough in relationship from assets in an estate. Here, the relatives did not identify themselves as the level of kin required to take from the Rosenthal Estate.