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All About the Surrogate’s Court

All About the Surrogate's Court by Tom Sciacca{Read in 5 minutes} What is the New York State Surrogate’s Court? The Surrogate’s Court handles matters that affect almost everybody, but almost nobody can pin down exactly what it is except the attorneys who practice there. So I thought I’d take a minute to explain what the Surrogate’s Court does, and a little bit about what I do as a Surrogate’s Court litigator.

At its most basic, the Surrogate’s Court handles the Estates of decedents (deceased people). When someone dies, it is up to the Surrogate’s Court to decide whether or not the person left a valid Will, who should be in charge of the Estate as the Executor or as the Administrator, and the Surrogate’s Court will also resolve any disputes between the Executor/Administrator and beneficiaries to the extent that such disputes come up during the administration of an Estate. There is one Surrogate Court in each county, and the judges of the Surrogate’s Court are elected to a term of a fixed number of years. Very often the Surrogate’s Court is located in the same building that houses the Supreme Court; in Manhattan, the Surrogate’s Court is in a separate building with a rich history.

A Surrogate’s Court is divided into many different departments. The most frequently visited of which are the Probate and Administration Departments. The Probate Department handles applications to offer Wills for Probate, whereas the Administration Department handles the Estates of those people who died without a Will. These two departments probably see the majority of the foot traffic in the courts.

What are the other departments that are commonly housed in the Surrogate’s Court? There is an Accounting Department whose job is to handle the written accounts that Executors and Administrators file with the Court when asking it to approve how they handled the funds of an Estate or Trust. There’s also the Miscellaneous Department which handles a variety of proceedings that could be anything from getting a Court order for opening a safe deposit box to search for a Will, to getting permission to sell real property, to applications to remove an Executor for failure to perform their job properly.

Finally, every Surrogate’s Court also has a Guardianship and Adoption Department which handles the appointment of a guardian for children under the age of 18 who no longer have a living parent, and will also handle the funds of minors who inherit money. The Guardianship Department also handles guardianship Estates not only for minors, but for adults of any age that may suffer from an intellectual disability and need the appointment of a guardian to protect their personal and proprietary interests.

Is the Surrogate’s Court user-friendly? Yes! But there are some times when a party is better served by having an attorney. It depends on how simple or complicated the matter before the court is. For example, there are many proceedings that a person might not even need to retain an attorney to handle. For example, the administration of a very small Estate (less than $30,000) or the appointment of a guardian for a minor. The clerks are very knowledgeable and can give you pre-printed forms and point you in the direction of websites that will help you complete the forms by yourself. Many people choose to retain an attorney for the majority Surrogate’s Court proceedings. It is unusual for an Estate of a certain size not to have an attorney prepare a probate or administration application. Certainly all contested matters are things that the parties usually appear with counsel.

Therefore, in conclusion, it is important to understand the role of the Surrogate’s Court. Most people who die (ie: everyone!) will wind up having some portion of their affairs handled by the Surrogate’s Court. As people, as citizens of the State of New York that the Court serves, it is important for us to understand how it will handle requests from our loved ones when they offer the Will for probate — and how the Court will protect the integrity of our Estate plan and the beneficiaries that we choose to protect.

For more information on the Surrogate’s Court please contact Tom Sciacca here.