In New York, when a person dies, it does not necessarily mean that the surviving spouse is automatically able to receive the proceeds of his or her estate. This is particularly important if the person died intestate. Not having an estate plan could lead to litigation among the heirs. Of course, it is advisable for everyone to formulate a comprehensive estate plan so there is no confusion at the time of death, but if there is not one, it is important to know when a spouse can be disqualified under state law.

The person will not be considered a surviving spouse if there was a decree of divorce, if the marriage was annulled, or the marriage was nullified at the time of death of the other spouse. Any marriage that is considered incestuous, bigamous, or prohibited will also result in the surviving spouse’s disqualification. Getting a decree for a divorce from the spouse outside New York State, having the marriage annulled or declared invalid because of an absence will render the surviving spouse disqualified.

When there was a judgment or decree of separation that was deemed valid in New York and was rendered against the surviving spouse while being in effect at the time of death will disqualify the surviving spouse. When there was abandonment of the deceased spouse and that continued until he or she died, it is disqualifying. Finally, if the spouse was duty bound to provide support to the other spouse and failed to do so despite the other spouse not having the means or capability of doing so – unless the marital duty resumed and was ongoing until the death of the spouse who required support – it is disqualifying.

It is not unusual for people to try to get an estate in part or in its entirety after a person has died even if there was a fissure in the relationship or a dispute over eligibility for being an heir under the law. Knowing when a spouse can be disqualified can be a key factor after a person’s death for the surviving spouse and for other members of the family. Having legal assistance from a law firm that is aware of these situations and can help with estate administration is useful to deal with a case.