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Surrogate’s Court: Quick and Efficient

Surrogate’s Court: Quick and Efficient by Tom Sciacca{Read in 5 minutes}  Courts are not *always* known for their swiftness. Usually when one thinks of a Court, they think of bureaucracy and red tape — however, the Surrogate’s Court is often one of the quickest and most efficient Courts that one will encounter. While I’ve spent some time talking about probate proceedings, administration proceedings, accounting proceedings, and guardianship proceedings, I’d like to take a minute to talk a little bit about some of the very niche things that the Surrogate’s Court can do very quickly. I touched upon these topics in my article concerning representing oneself in the Surrogate’s Court, but I thought I’d take a moment to expand upon it here.

Both of the things that I wish to discuss concern getting some immediate relief from the Surrogate’s Court before the court issues Letters to an Executor or Administrator of the Estate — and they both deal with getting immediate access to important papers upon someone’s death.

– What are these important papers?

They are the original Last Will and Testament, the deed to any cemetery plot, and/or life insurance policies.

– Why are these documents so important?

Very often, they are needed immediately in order to arrange for the final dispositions of the decedent’s remains. If there is going to be a burial, the cemetery will require the original deed to open the plot and a life insurance policy may be helpful if the undertaker is going to use the death benefit as a loan to cover the cost of the final arrangements.

As discussed in previous articles, the Surrogate’s Court will need the original Will to offer for probate.

– What type of relief can the Surrogate’s Court grant?

For all of these documents, the Surrogate’s Court can give an interested party immediate access in order to search and remove these documents from either the decedent’s safe deposit box or the decedent’s residence.

Safe Deposit Box

Traditionally, people keep important papers in their safe deposit box. As fewer and fewer people seem to be interested in maintaining safe deposit boxes, the number of documents kept there tends to diminish.

– What happens when someone dies with papers in a safe deposit box?

The person listed as Executor under the Will (or if there is no Will, the person’s next of kin) can petition the Court for an Order to enter the safe deposit box. The court will generally turn this order around in less than an hour or so, and at a minimal cost (presently $26).

The clerks usually handle this application on their own, so there is no need to hire an attorney, nor is there any need to appear before a judge. The interested party can walk out of the Courthouse and go to the bank with an Order to search the safe deposit box.

Note: The Court Order will allow entry, but if the person does not have the key to the safe deposit box, they may need to pay an additional fee for a locksmith to break open the box.


Sometimes it is necessary to get a Court Order to search a deceased person’s residence for these documents. Perhaps the interested party looking for them didn’t live there, nor are they a direct family member. Or perhaps a landlord is being really aggressive and will not provide access.

Sometimes the police department will seal a person’s residence if the person (1) lived at home and (2) died in their home. In either of these situations, no one is allowed into the apartment without a Court Order.

Again, an interested party can go to the Surrogate’s Court and file papers for a similar small fee, to get a Court Order allowing access to the residence. This Order can be submitted to the landlord, or to the police department, who will then allow access.

It’s important to note that in either of these situations, the only items that one can search for or remove are those listed above; Wills, life insurance policies, cemetery plot deeds. Anything else has to wait until the eventual appointment of an Executor or Administrator.

Finally, one should remember that in order to get either of these orders, the Surrogate’s Court will need a death certificate issued by the Department of Vital Records.

For more information on this topic, please feel free to contact me.