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Served with a Surrogate’s Court Citation? Now What?!?!?!

Served with a Surrogate's Court Citation? Now what?!?!?! by Tom Sciacca{Read in 6 minutes}  In the Surrogate’s Court, there are various types of parties: those who start proceedings are called Petitioners, and they are the ones seeking relief from the Court, such as Probate of a Will. The appointment of an administrator for someone who dies intestate, or the myriad of other proceedings that the Surrogate’s Court handles on a daily basis.

The parties entitled to notice of the proceeding are called Respondents, and they have the ability to object to the relief the Petitioner is requesting if they wish. In order for the Surrogate’s Court to obtain jurisdiction over the matter, the Petitioner must satisfy the Court that it has properly noticed (served) all potential Respondents.

There are two common ways that a Petitioner may do that. First, the Petitioner may ask any of the Respondents to waive the formal notice requirements. For example, if I’m the nominated Executor of a Will in which you are an interested party, you may have no objection to my offering the Will for probate. In that situation, I may ask you to sign a form called Waiver of Process: Consent to Probate, in which you can sign and waive your rights to receive the formal notice. This sort of Waiver and Consent is available in almost every type of proceeding before the Surrogate’s Court.

Second, where the Petitioner has not produced Waiver and Consent forms, it is very common for the Petitioner to ask the Surrogate’s Court to issue a Citation. When the Court issues the Citation, it formally advises interested parties of the nature of the proceeding, and gives them a date on which they need to appear in Court to oppose that relief, if they wish to do so. Depending on whether or not a Respondent resides inside or outside of New York State, they may receive this Citation by way of a process server personally serving it upon them or by certified or registered mail.

Now to get to the point: Regardless of how you get it, what should you do if someone serves a Citation upon you?

First, don’t panic. Unlike general legal proceedings, receiving a Surrogate’s Court Citation does not necessarily mean someone is suing you. This simply means you are entitled to notice of a pending proceeding. This is something that could potentially affect your legal rights, but not necessarily. And it’s entirely possible that the Petitioner is not seeking any relief directly from the Respondents; they may simply be interested parties.

Second, and most importantly, I strongly advise that you immediately consult with an attorney about your legal rights. The Citation essentially starts a ticking clock against Respondents who are interested in the proceeding, forcing them to basically “put up or shut up.” If they have something to say in opposition, they better say it before the deadline, otherwise the Court will presume that they consent and proceed without them. It’s generally helpful to consult an attorney at this juncture, whether or not the party decides to object formally, or to actually retain someone beyond consulting about their legal rights. The cost of a one-time consultation to answer some questions may be minimal.

Third, if the Respondent cannot afford an attorney or otherwise does not wish to hire one, it’s very important that Respondents educate themselves about the nature of the proceeding. One thing that is very helpful to do is to bring the Citation to the Record Room at the Courthouse and look up the underlying proceeding with the file number that appears on the Citation. By doing so, the Respondent may review and read the entire Petition filed by the Petitioner and confirm whether the statements the Petitioner made to the Court are accurate or not. If the Respondent wishes to file some sort of formal objection to the relief requested, the Respondent can visit one of the departments at the Surrogate’s Court and request a form or sample objections to file with the Court. While the clerks are generally unable to give legal advice, they will try to be helpful and point you in the right direction within their ability to do so.

Remember, Courts exist to serve the populations of their communities. While it may be intimidating going to a Courthouse, either by yourself or with an attorney, the Court’s judicial and non-judicial staff are simply focused on processing the case towards its correct conclusion. They are generally welcoming and happy to answer general questions. Educating oneself upon the receipt of a Citation can be incredibly helpful and calming, and a good night’s sleep is generally worth its weight in gold.

If you or someone you know has received a Citation for a Surrogate’s Court proceeding, and you would like to discuss the matter, please contact me here.