Making Distributions

Allocating estate proceeds to heirs

A distribution is the delivery of cash or an asset to a given heir. After resolving debts and paying any taxes due, the executor should distribute the remaining estate to the heirs in accordance with the instructions in the will (or as dictated by the court).

General Plan

Before making any distributions, it's best to come up with an overall estate settlement plan: how you plan to resolve debts, which assets you plan to sell, which assets you plan to distribute directly, which heirs will get what, etc.

Your goal is to resolve all debts and to allocate 100% of the remaining value of the estate, with each heir scheduled to receive the proper items and the correct overall share of the estate. It's usually easiest to try to do things in this order:

  1. Handle Named Beneficiaries — Define distributions for assets over which you have no control (i.e., 401Ks, life insurance policies, etc.)
  2. Account for Family Entitlements — Define distributions for any Family Entitlements that will be utilized
  3. Allocate Bequests — Define distributions for any specific bequests made in the will
  4. Prepare for Debt Resolution — Ensure you will have enough cash to resolve the debts, planning to sell assets if necessary
  5. Mark Assets for Sale or Distribution — Plan remainder of asset disposition
  6. Allocate Distributions — Define distributions so that each heir will get the proper share of the final estate

If the estate will not have enough free cash to resolve all debts, even after liquidating all available assets in step 5, you may need to revisit some of the earlier steps in an attempt to satisfy estate creditors, since debts generally have precedence over other estate claims (see Insolvent Estates).

EstateExec makes the overall planning process easier by allowing you to mark whether you plan to sell or distribute each asset (see Reference: Asset Planning), and to define desired distributions to each heir (see Reference: Manage Distributions). You can then see at a glance which assets and heirs need more attention, and the Overview tab will show you overall estate progress.

Named Beneficiaries

Certain items are not passed through a will, such as life insurance, property held in joint tenancy or community property with the right of survivorship, funds in an IRA or 401K for which a beneficiary was named, stocks held in a transfer-on-death account, and so forth. You can choose to list these items as assets to help you keep things organized, but remember to create a Distribution for each with the "Reason" identified as "Beneficiary".

Family Entitlements

New York allows a surviving spouse and any minor children to claim certain entitlements that supersede most other estate claims, in the following cumulative order:

Personal Property Exemption

The following personal property is typically set aside for a surviving spouse or any minor children who were under 21 at the time of the decedent's death:

  • Cash equivalents, stocks, and bonds up to $25,000 in aggregate
  • One vehicle up to $25,000
  • Household items worth up to $20,000 in aggregate
  • Books, media, and related devices worth up to $2,500 in aggregate
  • Domestic and farm animals, up to 60 days of their food, a tractor, and a lawn tractor up to $20,000 in aggregate

See NY CLS EPTL § 5-3.1.

Homestead Exemption

A surviving spouse or minor children are entitled to claim and reside in the family homestead until the death of the spouse or the youngest child reaches adulthood, whichever comes later.

If the property is worth more than the limits below, other claims (i.e., liens) can be made against the additional value, for future satisfaction when the homestead is no longer in use.

  • $150,000 in Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, Westchester, or Putnam County
  • $125,000 in Dutchess, Albany, Columbia, Orange, Saratoga, or Ulster County
  • $75,000 in any other NY county

See NY CPLR § 5206.

Surviving Spouse Elective Share

Unless the decedent has taken specific legal actions, and regardless of what the will says, a surviving spouse is optionally entitled to claim a share of the estate equal to the greater of:

  • $50K (up to the value of the estate, if the estate is worth <$50K)
  • Or one third of the net estate value, where net value is calculated as the gross value minus any debts, administration expenses, and reasonable funeral expenses

See NY EPTL § 5-1.1-A.

No Family Living Allowance

Since people commonly ask, note that NY does not provide for a separate "living allowance" to maintain a family's standard of living (unlike many other states).

Specific Bequests

Note that wills sometimes specify that certain assets or dollar amounts are to be distributed to certain heirs. You can mark these bequests via the Distribution dialog (see Manage Distributions). However, not all such bequests can be honored: sometimes the asset is no longer part of the estate; sometimes the bequest conflicts with local law (e.g., community property); sometimes the asset must be sold (as a last resort) in order to pay estate debts.

Heir Estate Percentages

The will usually specifies the percentage of the net estate that each heir should receive. For example, if the will says that Sally should get 40% of the estate, and the estate is worth $200K, then Sally is be entitled to $80K worth of assets and cash, and all of the defined distributions for Sally should add up to $80K.

Tip: You can enter these target percentages on the EstateExec Heirs tab, and as you define distributions, see how you you are doing in reaching these targets in the Heir Target Allocation chart on the Overview tab (for additional tips, see EstateExec Reference: Manage Distributions).

Charitable Donations

A charitable donation is really just an estate distribution to a particular type of heir (a charity). The executor does not have the right to give away items of value to charities unless specifically authorized by the will or the court.

Distribution Completion and Receipts

Actually making distributions to heirs is usually one of the last things the executor does in settling the estate. Although it is best practice to make all the distributions at the end of the process, it is usually permissible to make some distributions earlier if desired (be especially careful of restrictions if the estate is going through probate). Once you have actually made a given distribution, you should mark it Done.

It is good practice to require all heirs to sign a receipt for any distributions (the receipt can cover multiple items). When making final distributions to an heir, it is also good practice to have that person sign a document (perhaps prepared by an attorney), stating that he or she approves of your actions as executor and confirms that he or she has received everything due.

Discount $$:  EstateExec users can access significant discounts on third-party shipping services (see Task: Make all distributions).

See also EstateExec Reference: Manage Distributions for specifics about using EstateExec to organize, plan, and document distributions that satisfy the directives of the will (and/or the court).

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