NY Bar Steps Up To Address Estate Woes After Virus

By Emma Cueto | May 31, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in March, thousands of New Yorkers have lost loved ones to COVID-19, leaving them not only to confront grief but also to navigate the often-unfamiliar and confusing legal process of dealing with a relative's estate.

In an effort to make that process easier, the New York State Bar Association has launched a program to provide pro bono attorneys to handle small estates of New Yorkers who have died from the disease. NYSBA says it hopes the program will both aid grieving families and relieve some of the pressure on the court system.

New York has been hit hard by the pandemic, with over 23,000 deaths statewide recorded by the state Department of Health. New York City has reported over 16,000 deaths following a positive test for the virus and has identified an additional 4,700 deaths as probable COVID-19 deaths.

The tragedy has strained the state's court system, according to NYSBA, with thousands of small estates being handled by the state's Surrogate's Court when courts are also trying to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The NYSBA program, led by former NYSBA president Michael Miller, hopes to help the courts handle the influx.

"We thought that in light of the staggering numbers of those who have died, particularly in New York City, the Surrogate's Court would be swamped," Miller said. "We felt that not only could we provide assistance to the thousands of people who lost loved ones who will need to address these final formalities in the court, but also we would be assisting the administration of justice."

Miller, a longtime trust and estates attorney, said that the team members behind the project started trying to put it together less than three weeks ago and have worked "literally day and night" to get the program up and running.

He added that in designing the program he drew on his experience aiding the relief effort after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when he and other attorneys worked to help family members obtain death certificates for people who died in the Twin Towers.

"That experience, putting that training program together and supervising that, helped to define our model," he said.

However, he noted that handling an estate case is more complicated than trying to obtain a death certificate, especially since most attorneys have never handled a small estate before. The organizers had to develop training that not only covered the process and how to fill out certain forms, but also how to verify that the person filing was in fact the next of kin, or that the estate was being handled in the proper jurisdiction.

Attorneys may also have to handle situations unique to the pandemic, Miller said. At the height of the crisis in New York City, he said, bodies were buried in potter's fields if a hospital could not immediately determine next of kin. Today, some family members want their loved ones relocated. To help handle unusual situations, Miller said, volunteer attorneys will be supervised by people with expertise in estates.

Most small estates are handled by relatives, without attorneys, Miller explained, because usually the family could not afford an attorney.

"When someone is unrepresented in court, greater care has to be taken by the clerks ... because there's a greater likelihood of mistakes," he said. "So more court resources are required."

The project, which has now launched, has an online portal where people can provide information about their loved one's estate and request help from an attorney. It also has an online signup system for attorney volunteers.

Miller said that so far over 600 lawyers have volunteered, and about 20 have already completed the training.

"The outpouring so far has been very gratifying," Miller said.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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