Hidden Gems of the Surrogate’s Court

A large archive with moveable storing shelves

{Read in 4 Minutes}  As a Trusts and Estates attorney, I find myself very often standing in the halls of the Surrogate’s Court. Whether I am there to appear on the return date of a Citation, to file a Will for Probate, to take a deposition, or to conduct a trial, every time I get to walk in the building, it is a fascinating adventure.

For example, here in Manhattan, the New York County Surrogate’s Court sits in a landmark building in lower Manhattan with fascinating architectural details including artwork, carved ceilings, and marble fireplaces designed by Tiffany & Co. However, what’s always fascinated me most about this Courthouse is the record room. 

Like in any other Courthouse, the record room is open to the public. In Surrogate’s Court, the record room contains copies of the Wills of thousands of dead New Yorkers, including some very famous people. Where else would one have the opportunity to review such documents? 

Much like any museum-quality collection, these archives enthrall visitors of all ages. For example, I’ve been teaching at the High School Academy at New York University for the past several years and in doing so, I always take my students down to the Courthouse to visit the record room. Imagine a situation where you walk into a room filled with archives and books ONLY TO WATCH ALL OF YOUR TEENAGE STUDENTS PUT THEIR PHONES DOWN FOR FIVE MINUTES because they were so fascinated with what they were seeing. What did we see on these days? We got to read the Wills of Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Herman Melville, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, David Bowie, Anthony Bordain, Count Basie, and Gloria Vanderbilt. There’s even a hand-transcribed copy of the original Will of Alexander Hamilton. All of these students put down their electronic devices for close to 20 minutes, simply enthralled that they were reading the words of these famous people who had died as residents of Manhattan.

Some of these documents have a storied history themselves! For example, in an action rivaling the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, someone stole Babe Ruth’s original Will from the Courthouse and tried to sell it at auction. The State of New York had to sue to recover the document back into the archive.  

Because I litigate often in the Surrogate’s Court, I will find myself at the Courthouse perhaps with 20 or 30 minutes to spare before appearing on the Court’s calendar, and I will amuse myself in the record room. Right after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died, I strolled down to the record room and read his Will. 

Some people are of the opinion that people should avoid probate at all costs (perhaps to the extent of writing a revocable trust), because of privacy concerns. However, let me tell you, the contents of most Wills are not anything shocking. For example, the Will of Phillip Seymour Hoffman very scandalously left things to his children. Not exactly a salacious trip into the public archive.

While appearing in Court can be stressful for some or just another day at work for others, it’s always important that we take a moment to recognize and appreciate our local treasures and artifacts, whether they be carved in marble, painted on canvas, or the words of famous New Yorkers immortalized forever in our Surrogate’s Court.

For more information on this topic, please contact me.

Thomas Sciacca

 

Thomas Sciacca

www.sciaccalaw.com
Tom@SciaccaLaw.com
(212) 495-0317