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Kinship hearings: Getting to the roots of valid inheritance

Family trees can be complicated things. Indeed, the nature of relationships today is such that it can be hard to find words to describe a given family. There might be second families, blended families, extended families and more. Such variables also create unique challenges for the courts in New York when someone dies, especially if there is no will and the estate is significant in size.

What typically happens in such instances is that an agency known in New York as the Surrogate's Court will appoint an administrator whose task is to distribute assets to heirs in line with the state's law on intestate succession. Identifying heirs can be simple, such as when there is a spouse, children and other close relatives. It can be difficult if lines of succession are less clear and the probate process sparks relational claims from previously unknown individuals. To resolve such contested issues requires litigation through a kinship hearing.

When kinship claims surface, it is up to the individuals making such claims to provide proof to the court of how they are related to the decedent by blood. So, for example, a foster child or stepchild might not be entitled to a share of the estate under the law. At the same time, a child fathered by a decedent outside of marriage and who never knew the decedent at all, might have a legitimate claim.

Tenets of fairness being inherent in the rule of law make kinship hearings necessary. The potential complications of such cases are obvious, and the unique rules and procedures of the Surrogate's Court can be confusing and frustrating, making the help of experienced counsel crucial.

As an example, consider the case of pop star Prince. He died without a will in April 2016. After his death, dozens of people came forward to claim a piece of the estate. Most of them were rejected in the early stages of the probate process, and it wasn't until May 2017 that the court officially named a sister and five half-siblings as heirs.

But that is not the end of the story. Late last month, a woman came forward claiming to be Prince's biological daughter. And she claims to have a report from a DNA tracking company that shows she has genetic ties to some Prince relatives. Not surprisingly, Prince's declared heir want her claim rejected.

Probate remains in progress.

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