Settling the estate of a parent is difficult for children. It is even more difficult when the children do not agree on how to handle property that they inherit together as tenants in common.
In Baucom v. Young, Dorothy Baucom died intestate on January 24, 2013, leaving 3 adult daughters: plaintiff Cheryl T. Baucom and defendants Deborah Young and Charlene Baucom. Defendant Charlene is developmentally disabled, and Deborah is her caregiver. Under New York’s law of intestate succession, because Dorothy did not leave a will with specific instruction as to how her estate is to be distributed, her 3 daughters were entitled to inherit her entire estate in equal shares. The main asset in the estate was a three-story residential property in Brooklyn.
Ideally, the sisters would decide privately how to handle the property. For example, one option would be to agree to sell the property and divide the proceeds equally. Another option would be for one or two of the siblings to buy out the sibling or siblings who does not want to own the property. Unfortunately, the three siblings in this case were not able to agree on the fate of the house on their own.
According to the plaintiff, Cheryl, defendant Deborah was able to become the administrator of their mother’s estate by submitting a petition that included Cheryl’s signature consenting to Deborah’s appointment as administrator. However, Cheryl alleged that she never signed the document and did not consent to Deborah’s appointment as administrator. In her role as administrator, Deborah was able to execute an Administrator’s Deed transferring the house to herself, individually and to Charlene. Both Deborah and Charlene signed the deed, and it was recoded on April 22, 2014. The problem with this that under the law of intestate succession, Cheryl had a 1/3 interest in the house.
Plaintiff Cheryl initiated this estate litigation in order to secure her interest in the estate. The relief she requested from the court includes a judgment of partition and sale of the Brooklyn building at public auction. Defendants Deborah and Charlene dispute Cheryl’s version of the events that led to the execution of the deed. Further, defendant Charlene, though her guardian ad litem, argued that granting the partition would result in a hardship on her as she lives at the Brooklyn property with Deborah as her caregiver. If the property is sold, she would end up in a group home and lose needed services.
Under New York Real Property Law, a person who inherits property as a tenant in common has the right to initiate a legal action for the partition of the property. If it appears that partition cannot be made without great prejudice to the owners, then they have a right to initiate an action to sell the property.
Here, plaintiff Cheryl established her prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on her cause of action for partition the property as it is clear that under the law of intestate succession, she is a 1/3 owner of the property. As far as the plaintiff’s request that the court order the property to be sold, before that can happen, the court ordered an accounting of the property.
One of the defendants’ arguments against partition is the adverse impact doing so would have on defendant Charlane. The court noted that while it sympathized with Charlane, the adverse impact on her could not be the sole reason for denying partition. Further, the court noted that the defendants did not argue that Charlane would have to go into a group home if the property was sold or the specifics as to what services she would lose.
This case makes it clear that it is always wise to create an estate plan and not rely on intestate succession rules, particularly if there is a loved one with special needs.