Where There is No English Language Will, There is a Probate Contest
Certified translation of Apostille records issued by foreign governments plays an important role in authenticating cross-border foreign language documents, especially in cases where the decedent dies intestate. These Apostille records- accompanied by certified English translation– serve as a critical piece of evidence, often determining the rightful heirs to an estate. A case that perfectly illustrates this is In the Matter of Estate of Bulhack, NJ: Appellate Div. 2011, which involved a dispute between paternal cousins from Belarus and maternal cousins from the United States over the estate of Peter Bulhack, who died intestate in 2004.
The case hinged on whether the powers of attorney submitted by the Belarus plaintiffs were sufficient to prove their survivorship and their relation to the decedent. We will examine the background, the dispute, the decision, and the appeal of this case, and discuss its implications for intestate succession law in New Jersey.
Bulhack’s Intestate Estate and the Paternal Cousins’ Claims
Peter Bulhack was a resident of Union County, New Jersey, who died without a will. He had no surviving spouse, children, parents, siblings, or grandparents. His estate consisted of “a bank account with a balance of $1,000 and a home valued at $300,000.” Under New Jersey’s intestacy statute, his estate would be distributed to his next of kin in equal shares. However, identifying his next of kin proved to be a challenge. About two years after his death, eight paternal cousins from Belarus initiated an action against Bulhack’s estate, alleging that they were his first cousins once removed and were entitled to inherit under the statute.
They submitted certified Russian to English translations of powers of attorney and other apostilled documents such as Belarusian birth and marriage records to support their claims. The estate administrator disputed their assertions and moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion and ordered a trial to determine the validity of the plaintiffs’ claims.
The Dispute over the Plaintiffs’ Survivorship and the Validity of Their Powers of Attorney
The trial court found that both the U.S. heirs and the plaintiffs were indeed Bulhack’s cousins and, therefore, entitled to inherit under the intestacy statute. The court ordered the division of the estate accordingly. However, the story didn’t end there. The estate administrator appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to confirm that they survived Bulhack, which was a prerequisite for inheriting under New Jersey law. The estate administrator also challenged the authenticity and sufficiency of the powers of attorney submitted by the plaintiffs, which were written in Russian and contained an apostille and various seals. The estate administrator contended that these Russian documents were not self-proving and required a final certification from a foreign official.
The plaintiffs countered that their powers of attorney were valid and sufficient to prove their survivorship and their relation to Bulhack. They also waived their right to appear in support of their cause, relying solely on certified English translation of their documentary evidence. The appellate court was faced with the task of reviewing the trial court’s findings and determining whether the plaintiffs met their burden of proof.
The Appellate Court Decision Affirmed All Cousins’ Right to Inherit
The court, after reviewing the case, concluded that the powers of attorney evidence the plaintiffs’ survivorship. The court noted that the powers of attorney were executed between 2006 and 2008, well after Bulhack’s death in 2004. The court also found that the powers of attorney contained an apostille and various seals to authenticate the documents, as required by the Hague Convention of 1961. The court explained that an apostille is a certificate issued by a designated authority in a country where a document originates that certifies its validity for use in another country. The court stated that an apostille eliminates the need for further authentication or legalization by the embassy or consulate of the country where the document is to be used.
The court held that these documents were self-proving and obviated the need for a final certification from a foreign official. The case was remanded for further review and factual findings, emphasizing the importance of apostille records in proving survivorship. The trial court on remand verified the self-proving character of the submissions and determined that all eight plaintiffs survived Bulhack. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s determination and (re-)ordered the division of the estate accordingly.
Certified Translation of Apostilled Foreign Records to English
The Bulhack Estate case underscores the critical role of apostille records in probate cases, particularly when the decedent dies intestate. These records can serve as proof of relationship and survivorship, two key factors in determining the rightful heirs and distributing the estate. Without such evidence, the probate process can become mired in disputes and legal complexities, as seen in this case. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the role of certified translation of foreign Apostille records in probate cases remains as crucial as ever.
Get in touch with the legal translation, interpretation, genealogy research and Apostille service All Language Alliance, Inc. to request certified English translation of apostille records written in Russian, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Croatian, Dutch, French, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Chinese, Hungarian, and other foreign languages; to request a court-certified interpreter and/ or an expert witness in a foreign language and culture; to retain an expert in forensic genealogy and in global heir search.
Case discussed: IN THE MATTER OF ESTATE OF BULHACK, No. A-3602-09T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Apr. 14, 2011); re-affirmed after remand in IN THE MATTER OF ESTATE OF BULHACK, No. A-3602-09T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Aug. 26, 2011).
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