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Spouses' inheritance rights in New York

New York residents who have survived their spouses often have questions about their rights to inherit part of their spouses' estates. Although New York is a common law state, a surviving spouse still has rights that entitle them to part of their deceased spouse's estate.

Because of the rules of property ownership in New York, the spouse of a deceased person is not necessarily entitled to half of that person's estate. The person whose name is on the title of a piece of property is its legal owner, even if that person's spouse actually paid for it. For property that is not associated with a title, the person who paid for the item is its owner. This means that each spouse in a marriage does not necessarily own half of the property acquired during the marriage.

Although it is a common law state, New York law disallows people from completely excluding their spouses from their wills. Residents of New York are entitled to one-third of their deceased spouses' estates. This mandate is even applicable in cases where a deceased person left less than one-third of their estate to their spouse. A spouse who was excluded from a will or who received less than one-third of the estate may take the case to court to claim their share. If the spouse does not make a claim with the court or if they consented in writing to receive less than one-third of the estate, the deceased person's property will be distributed as indicated in their will.

People whose spouses are deceased often have difficulty maintaining their standard of living without their full share of their spouses' estates. Attorneys may be able to advise surviving spouses on how to make a claim to an estate even if their spouse excluded them from their wills.

Source: FindLaw, "Inheritance Law and Your Rights", accessed on Feb. 16, 2015

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