When creating an estate plan, choosing the right executor is the most important decision you can make. Take the case of Rose Montague, who decided to sign away control of her cousin’s estate administration to the Public Administrator of Bronx County. This resulted in a nightmare where she lost half of her inheritance and could never get in touch with an unresponsive Public Administrator’s office. This ordeal has taken a great emotional and physical toll on Rose, and she has no recourse because she signed away her rights as executor.
The Role of a Public Administrator
Unlike the New York City surrogate court judges, who are elected officials, public administrators are appointed by each county’s surrogate court. Surrogate court judges are elected to 14-year terms, while public administrators are not subject to any term limits and can only be removed by the county’s surrogate judge. The role of a public administrator in a surrogate court is to administer the estates of those without estate plans, or those with an estate plan whose designated executor is either unwilling, unable, or otherwise disqualified from fulfilling their responsibility.
The Case of Rose Montague
In 2018, Montague, a retired teacher living in Canada, had returned home from her cousin Gloria’s funeral when she was notified by the Bronx County Public Administrator that she was the sole beneficiary of her cousin Gloria’s large estate. Not wanting to handle her cousin’s estate from another country and still grieving her loss, Montague signed away her right to administer her cousin’s estate to the public administrator after consultation with a lawyer. What Montague did not know, and what she clearly was not told by her counsel, was how convoluted and expensive the process of having a public administrator handle an estate is.
According to“The City”, a New York news outlet, the original value of Gloria’s estate was $762,775, but Montague is set to inherit only about half that number. More than $250,000 was used to pay legal fees to outside counsel, alongside funeral expenses, appraisers, brokers, and the public administrator’s commission. A further $100,000 dollars were used to pay charges and property taxes on the large two-bedroom condo in Riverdale, she was set to inherit. The condo was only sold in 2021, and for $75,000 less than Gloria had originally paid for it. These fees were significantly higher than the 12% of the estate Rose had been promised it would cost her. Even worse, the public administrator’s office was completely unresponsive to calls or questions from Rose, while still notifying her of the accruing expenses, and never provided a list of specified items from the condo, including her uncle’s jewelry.
The jewelry is a particularly tragic part of this case, as it was the remnant of the hard work that Gloria’s father Lucius had put into building his American dream. Lucius immigrated from Jamaica and opened a jewelry store in Harlem. Lucius had also accrued some jewelry and left it to Gloria upon his death, with Rose set to inherit it. The emotional strain of the process left Rose in a state of constant anxiety, believing she had failed her cousin because she was unable to secure her uncle’s jewelry. The inaction of the public administrator’s office has made Gloria’s death even more stressful for Rose and stunted her grieving process.
Appointing an Executor
To avoid the prolonged stress and grief that Rose has experienced, there are several important steps that you must take when crafting your estate plan. First, it is important to keep your estate plan up to date, so that there are no contentions among benefactors or delays in locating assets and paying off creditors. Second, when drawing up your estate plan, ensure that you name a trustworthy executor. While it might be tempting to simply name a benefactor, consulting with an experienced probate and estate planning lawyer will help immensely in making this crucial decision. A responsible individual who agrees to be your executor must probate your will, collect any necessary assets, protect property until all debts and taxes have been paid off, and transfer your estate to those who are entitled to it. An executor cannot have any felony convictions, must be a U.S. resident, and be over the age of 18. Finally, if your designated executor precedes you or informs you that they will not be able to fulfill their role, make the necessary changes to your estate plan as soon as possible.
Those experiencing the death of a loved one should never have to experience what Rose faced, and while the unprofessional behavior of the Bronx County public administrator should be remediated, finding the right executor for your estate remains of the utmost importance. With 20+ years of experience, the Law Office of Inna Fershteyn is the most valuable asset you can have in your corner when creating a comprehensive estate plan. To speak with a trustworthy and hardworking estate planning attorney, please call the Law Office of Inna Fershteyn at (718) 333-2394.