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New York & North Carolina

Can Distant Relatives Inherit if There is No Will?

Parisi, Coan & Saccocio, PLLC

When an individual passes away without having left a valid will, their estate is said to be intestate. In such cases, the deceased person's assets must be divided according to the laws of intestacy in their home state. Locating heirs who are entitled to a portion of their estate can be a difficult process, particularly if the decedent had no will or had lost contact with his/her family.

Locating Heirs in Intestacy Cases

The process for locating heirs pursuant to intestacy begins with identifying all potential heirs that may have an interest in the estate; this includes spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings and other family members. To do so, legal professionals must conduct extensive research using public records such as property deeds and birth certificates. They also may use personal items like diaries or letters that could provide clues about any other potential relatives who should be included in the search for heirs.

What happens, however, if the deceased person's few surviving relatives are distant relatives, such as first cousins once removed or their offspring? Does the law allow for the inheritance of such distant relatives? In the 1999 case, Shumavon, the decedent, died intestate and was survived by 3 first cousins and 20 first cousins once removed, as well as other more distant relatives. The court determined:

“EPTL 4-1.1(a)(7) Essentially states that first cousins once removed may become distributees when the decedent is not survived by first cousins, or by any closer relative. We see no conflict between a statute which authorizes first cousins once removed to become distributees when the decedent in fact had no closer relative, on the one hand, and a statute, such as the one under review in this case, which plainly and unambiguously states that first cousins once removed are not to be considered as distributees when the decedent is survived by one or more first cousins, on the other hand.” (Shumavon, at 143-44.)

A first cousin once removed can therefore inherit through intestacy. But what about relatives who are further away, like a first cousin twice removed? Can they inherit under intestacy laws? According to Practice Commentaries to Estates, Powers and Trusts Law § 4-1.1, the answer is no. The relationship to the decedent is too remote.

“First cousins twice removed take nothing in any case.” (Turano, Margaret Valentine. Practice Commentaries, McKinney’s Cons Laws of NY, Book 17B, EPTL §4-1.1.)

Make Things Simple: Write a Will to Help Your Loved Ones

Our estate planning attorneys are here to offer you expert guidance that relieves the potential stress your family could encounter due to intestacy. We ensure that your wishes are honored once you've passed away. While do-it-yourself wills might appear budget-friendly, it's crucial to recognize that legal intricacies can affect their validity. Our attorneys are adept at providing clarity and assurance throughout this process. Let us help address your uncertainties and ensure a smooth journey for you and your loved ones.