Polish Family Attempts to Settle Who Should Inherit
Sworn and certified legal document translation services play an important role in probate cases. They often involve certified Polish to English translations and testimony of expert witnesses in Polish genealogy. The Code of Ethics and Professional Practices of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) requires that professional genealogists report “appropriately qualified genealogical conclusions in writing based on the weight of the evidence with fully and accurately cited sources”. The case discussed below- In the Matter of the Estate of Edwin Szczesniak, 2024 N.Y. Slip Op. 50063(U) (Jan. 8, 2024 Sur Ct) – illustrates what is likely to happen in a kinship hearing when the court determines that there is not enough evidence concerning who should inherit the estate.
Edwin Szczesniak died without a will in 2017 in upstate New York. He was 93 and had served in World War II. Edwin had an estate worth $190,000. His death certificate stated he had been the owner of a bar restaurant called the Nite Cappe in Lackawanna, New York.
According to the claims made by the parties, Edwin’s closest relatives are a paternal first cousin (Jozefa) and seven maternal first cousins once removed. Since there were no closer heirs that were known, Letters of Administration were issued and a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) appointed for unknown heirs.
A Kinship Hearing is Held
During a kinship hearing, oral testimony and documentary evidence was provided. The Court explained that the proof required in a kinship hearing is stringent. A claimant must show (1) how he or she is related to the decedent, and (2) that no other persons of the same or a nearer degree of relationship survived the decedent. Once it is shown that no heirs other than those before the Court exist, only then the class of heirs may be “closed.”
Where claimants are cousins, the Court further explained that it is key to determine the identity of the grandparents and their children so that the cousin claimants can establish their status and also close the classes of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to show that there are no other heirs.
The Court noted that pursuant to New York Surrogate Court Procedures Act (SCPA) 2225(b), if three years had elapsed since a person’s death, a Court may determine that there are no persons other than those before it entitled to share in the person’s estate provided the parties have conducted a diligent and exhaustive search from all available sources to determine there are no other possible heirs.
Several Genealogists Testify About Their Research
A Polish genealogist testified at the kinship hearing as did the daughter of the alleged paternal cousin as well as an alleged maternal first cousin once removed. The Polish genealogist testified that the alleged paternal first cousin was the only surviving first cousin on the paternal side, but he could not confirm this conclusion.
An American genealogist also testified that the alleged paternal first cousin was the only heir on the paternal side. He testified that he relied on the assistance of a genealogical “correspondent” in Poland that provided evidentiary documents in Polish, but that he could not read them as he could not read Polish.
A third genealogist (also American) testified concerning her research regarding the decedent’s parents.
The Spousal Class Could Not Be Closed
With respect to decedent’s marriage, the paternal claimant submitted a default judgment from 1971 showing that Edwin’s marriage to a woman named Hanna had been dissolved because of Hanna’s abandonment of Edwin. The judgment stated that the couple had been married in Poland in 1964 and that they had no children. The two American genealogists testified that they could not find any evidence of any subsequent marriages. One genealogist did not explain how he came to that conclusion. The other had researched New York State Department of Health printed marriages for all of New York State (but had left out New York City) and she had not looked in other states. Based on the evidence submitted, the Court could not close the spousal class as it was not clear whether or not Edwin had remarried after the 1971 dissolution of his marriage.
The Class of Issue Could Not Be Closed
With regard to children, the two American genealogists testified that Edwin had had no children. One genealogist did not testify about where he searched, what resources he used, or what documentary proof he examined. The other relied on the 1971 judgment which stated that Edwin and Hanna did not have any children. A maternal first cousin once removed testified that he had cared for Edwin for about five years prior to his death and he saw no evidence (photos or paperwork) to suggest he had any children.
The Court found that there were large gaps in Edwin’s life that had not been accounted for including approximately 20 years from the end of World War II to the time of his marriage to Hanna in 1964. Another gap existed between 1971 (when his marriage ended) to 2012 (when the maternal first cousin once removed began to serve as Edwin’s caretaker). The Court concluded that no diligent and exhaustive efforts had been made by any of the claimants to find potential children and that the class of issue could not be closed.
Parents, Siblings, Nieces and Nephews
With regard to Edwin’s parents, the Court noted that Edwin’s birth certificate was not in the record and that his death certificate stated that Edwin’s parents were “unknown.” The maternal cousin once removed had been the informant on the death certificate, which the Court noted provided an indication of how much this relative might have known about Edwin.
The American genealogists testified that John and Catherine had been Edwin’s parents. There was documentary evidence in the form of the 1969 obituary for Edwin’s father, his siblings’ death certificates and other documents that established that Edwin had two brothers and that John and Catherine were their parents.
The Court turned to whether or not the parents had predeceased Edwin. It noted there were no death certificates for the parents. However, a certified English translation of the father’s Polish birth certificate showed he would have been 123 years old at the time of Edwin’s death. Also, there was the father’s 1969 obituary. With respect to Edwin’s mother, there was evidence in the record that showed that she had died in 1964. Based on that evidence and that it is well settled that persons who would be more than 100 years old at the time of a person’s death are presumed to have predeceased decedent, the Court was able to close the class of parents.
With respect to siblings, nieces and nephews, the Court found that the evidence showed that the siblings had both passed away prior to Edwin’s death and that there were no children that could be potential distributees. Therefore, the Court closed the class of siblings, nieces and nephews.
Since the lines of spouses and children could not be closed, the Court went through the grandparental lines of inheritance in case additional evidence is presented in the future to attempt to close the lines of spouses and children.
The Court reviewed the evidence submitted which included certified English translations of Polish birth, marriage and death certificates for Edwin’s aunt and uncles (Marianna, Kazimirez,and Jozef). While there was little evidence about the death of one uncle, the Court noted that he would have been 120 years old when Edwin died. The Court was satisfied that the evidence showed that Edwin’s paternal aunts and uncles had predeceased him.
With regard to the paternal cousins on the Uncle Jozef line, the evidence showed he had had four children, all who had died except Jozefa (the claimant paternal first cousin). However, the Court noted that there was no documentary evidence linking Jozefa to Jozef and that further proof would need to be provided to show her connection to Edwin if the kinship hearing is reopened in the future.
With regard to the paternal cousins on the Aunt Marianna line, it was clear that she had a daughter and that this cousin predeceased Edwin. However, the Court was not convinced that Aunt Marianna did not have other children and suggested that further proof be provided concerning that matter.
Finally, with respect to the paternal cousins on the Uncle Kazimirez line, there was very little information available and the Court noted there had not been “any efforts, diligent, exhaustive or otherwise, to close off such line of descent” making the SCPA 2225(b) presumption unavailable.
With regard to maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, there was little information available about them and the efforts made to find out about them. The class could therefore not be closed and the SCPA 2225(b) presumption could not be applied. Likewise, the class of maternal first cousins could not closed because there was little documentary evidence provided and the claimant (a maternal first cousin once removed) was an interested witness making his testimony on its own unreliable. The Court also noted that the law precluded inheritance from first cousins once removed if the first cousin class eventually closes at a future time.
In the end, the Court concluded that there was not enough evidence to determine who should inherit Edwin’s estate. It found that there were large gaps in the family history (totaling about 60 years) that were unaccounted for. The Court found it curious that there was not much documentary evidence aside from obituaries, death notices, and a default judgment of divorce as well as testimony from interested parties. No one had looked into Edwin’s 7-year marriage to Hanna nor had anyone searched the Internet to try to find out what happened to Hanna. The Court held that it could not allow speculation in a kinship hearing and that the evidence required must be cumulative and consistent for the Court to grant rights in an estate. The Court allowed the parties until March 1, 2024 to provide additional proof for their claims.
Polish Genealogy Research Services for Intestate Succession
Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to retain a professional Polish genealogist who will conduct an unbiased independent genealogical research to identify the heirs at law in intestate succession and provide Affidavit of Diligent Search for Kinship/ Family Tree; to obtain apostille certified translation of Polish records, and to hire a court-certified Polish interpreter to interpreter testimony of Polish witnesses.
#alllanguagealliance #Polishtranslation #Polishtranslationservices #Polishgenealogist #Polishgenealogyresearch #Polishcertifiedtranslation #evidentiarytranslationservices #Polishforensicgenealogist #Polishgenealogyexpert #Polishgenealogyexpertwitness #heirsatlaw #intestatesuccession