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New York Inheritance Litigation in Courts Other Than the Surrogate’s Court

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{Read in 5 Minutes}  As a Trust and Estates attorney, I frequently represent Executors, Administrators, and beneficiaries in matters related to Estates and Trusts. Most of the time this will involve a filing in the Surrogate’s Court for Estates of varying sizes.

But we’ll also include probate proceedings, (including Contested Probate Proceedings, Accounting Proceedings, Guardianships, Administration Proceedings, and various other types of proceedings). However, the Surrogate’s Court is not the only Court with jurisdiction to handle these disputes.

For matters involving the appointment of an Executor or an Administrator for a deceased New Yorker, the Surrogate’s Court has exclusive jurisdiction. Parties won’t be able to file probate or Administration Petitions in other Courts, such as the New York Supreme Court, the New York Family Court, or Federal Courts. So, here, the Surrogate’s Court is the only Court that will get to weigh in on these issues. But what other matters involving a deceased person might be litigated in another Court? Here are some examples:

1. Personal Injury and Wrongful Death

It is not uncommon for a deceased person to have some rights concerning other lawsuits. For example, they started a personal injury action and died before it was resolved. Or perhaps the deceased died as the result of an injury or accident, and the Executor or Administrator now needs to file the lawsuit on behalf of the deceased. Although the Surrogate’s Court will still appoint an Executor or Administrator to handle this, ultimately, another Court will deal with the underlying personal injury trial. The Surrogate’s Court does not decide personal injury matters.

2. Housing Court Issues

Perhaps the deceased was a landlord and owned either an apartment or a building with rental tenants. Perhaps the deceased was in the process of evicting a non-paying tenant, or since the deceased died, the Executor or Administrator needed to evict a non-paying tenant. Once appointed by the Surrogate’s Court, the Housing Court will decide the issues concerning the landlord and tenant’s rights. Although the Surrogate’s Court does have some jurisdiction to handle these sorts of disputes in limited scenarios, the Surrogate’s Court usually defers to the Housing Court. 

3. Inheritance-Related Litigations Started in Other Courts

Sometimes people file things in other Courts that could have easily been filed in the Surrogate’s Court. For example, I have seen Estates where there is a dispute about a beneficiary designation form. In that situation, I have seen the life insurance company bring a stakeholder proceeding in Federal Court, asking the Court to rule on who has the right to inherit the money. They easily could have filed this in the Surrogate’s Court, but their lawyers decided to file in Federal Court (this may be because the bathrooms are almost always cleaner in Federal Court). 

Or perhaps there is a dispute concerning the validity of a Trust created by the deceased during their lifetime. The New York State Supreme Court has concurrent (simultaneous) jurisdiction with the Surrogate’s Court to decide these issues. As a practical matter, an inexperienced attorney may choose to bring this to the New York State Supreme Court if they don’t have a lot of experience with the Surrogate’s Court. While the Supreme Court judge may elect to keep the case, as a practical matter, they routinely grant motions to transfer the matter to the Surrogate’s Court. Why? Because the Surrogate’s Court is already handling other issues related to this Estate, it might make more sense for the same Court to resolve all related issues.

Of course, an Estate might be involved in other Courts such as the Bankruptcy Court or the Tax Court. But the ones I mentioned above are by far the most common. If you are involved in a proceeding with a deceased person that is pending in a court other than the Surrogate’s Court, consider talking to your attorney about whether a transfer to the Surrogate’s Court might be in your best interests. For more information on this topic, please contact me.