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Online Record Room Searches Coming to the Surrogate’s Court is coming soon in New York!

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As a Trust and Estates attorney, I appear in the Surrogate’s Court quite frequently. Whether I am there to offer a Will for probate, deal with an accounting proceeding, or asking the Court to appoint a guardian for a minor who has inherited some money, part of my job will involve searching the record room to get the latest signed decisions or orders on my clients’ matters. While the record room can be an interesting treasure trove of historical data, it’s often all about the rote collection of information so I can tell my clients if the Court has issued Letters, and they can begin their duties as the Executor, or the Preliminary Executor can start administering the assets of an Estate.

A typical scene might go like this. You would show up at the record room at the Courthouse, wait your turn to use one of the computers (or for really old files dig through actual paper file folders) and then view/print the documents that you needed relevant to your case. In March 2020, due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, courts, like most other businesses, went largely remote, requiring e-Filing for almost all matters and having most court appearances online via video conference. However, accessing records was difficult because attorneys and members of the public were largely not permitted in most courthouses, absent an appointment, which might need to be secured weeks in advance to search the record room.

In response to this, the New York State Courts have begun making records available online. It used to be that the Surrogate’s Court lagged way behind other Courts in allowing people to retrieve documents without being physically present in the record room. However, New York State has launched a website: Name which will start allowing attorneys, litigants, and members of the public to access court records remotely. This is huge, not only in terms of convenience but also as far as allowing people to access these records outside of the Courts’ normal business hours and saving them from having to show up with several rolls of quarters to make copies at the record room.

It’s important to note that this is presently a relatively new program and not all of the 62 Surrogate’s Courts across the State of New York have their records online. As of January 2021 (but see numbered point #4, below!), there are presently six Surrogate’s Courts that make their records available online:

Queens County

•Westchester County

•Albany County

•Erie County

•Orleans County

•Monroe County

This is not something that’s only available to attorneys. Anyone with an internet connection can access these documents without creating login information, and view them as PDFs from the privacy of their home or office. It’s very exciting, not only to me as a practitioner, but also to the clients that I serve and people who are doing historical research concerning the assets of the deceased, concerning title to real property, genealogical research, or people who are just really bored and have nothing else to do at 3:00 AM on a Tuesday. 

A couple of important things to consider.

1. Not every document is going to be available online. Some Courts have gone back 10 or 20 years to digitize all of their documents and records. Other Courts are a little bit behind due to the volume of records to be digitized. Courts in the more populated areas of the state deal with a lot more Estates on an annual basis, and therefore have a lot more records.

2. Some Courts serve communities that have been settled for longer periods of time. For example, the New York County (Manhattan) Surrogate’s Court, has records going back to the 17th century.  That means it will take the Court significantly longer to upload all of the records which will delay public access to those Courts’ records.

3. There are some documents that are sensitive and are not available to the public, even in person, in the record room. For example, to prevent identity theft, death certificates and other documents are not viewable by the public. Also, documents related to guardianships for minors are generally sealed. 

4. This is a work in progress. The website is periodically down as the State makes this content available. If you attempt to access the website and cannot, I would suggest trying again later. I anticipate this will become a fully viable service soon. As of April 2021, it is a bit spotty…

If you have a moment, I encourage you to take a look online and familiarize yourself with this program. If you have any interest as an attorney or a litigant in Surrogate’s Court proceedings, I’d also encourage you to check back every two or three months, as the State adds more and more counties’ Surrogate’s Court records to the online database.

For more information on this topic, please contact me.