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What Do I Do When I Arrive at the Surrogate’s Court?

Confused, Business woman in front of a choice

{Read in 5 Minutes}  As a Trusts and Estates attorney, I frequently appear in the Surrogate’s Court. Whether I am there to offer a Will for probate, have an Executor appointed, file an accounting or an objection, or start a Will Contest, I’ve certainly been in and out of my fair share of Courthouses over the many years I have been practicing.

However, not everyone is a frequent visitor to the Courthouse, and many people, particularly those without an attorney, don’t know what to expect when they walk in the front door. For those readers who are represented by counsel, stop reading here — you should take instructions from your attorney directly.

Like any other Courthouse, the first thing that you can expect to do is walk through security. This will often involve removing items from your pockets and going through the metal detector. No surprise here. If you are appearing for a certain time, for example, you have a Citation that tells you to be in the Courthouse or Courtroom at 10:00 AM, leave some extra time. Sometimes the lines to get through the security checkpoint can be significant, and it’s not uncommon during peak hours to wait 15 or 20 minutes. While this was significantly less while the Court operated virtually, many Courts are now returning to normal operations (and frustrations!).

Once you are through security, figure out where you need to go. Here are some helpful guidelines: 

•If you are there for a Citation, or an Order to Show Cause (a Motion), you should go directly to the Courtroom indicated on your papers. If you have any questions about where the Courtroom is, you should ask a nearby clerk or a Court officer, who can point you in the right direction.

•Sometimes people are there for a conference with a Court Attorney, the purpose of which may be to try to settle. In that case, you should go directly to the room mentioned on the Notice, which will often be in the Law Department or designated conference room. 

•Some Courts require you to first check in at the Courtroom, and then the Court Attorney will take the parties to a separate conference room. Other times they will have you go directly to the Law Department, which is an area in the Surrogate Courts where the Court Attorneys have their offices.

•If you are there to file a petition, go directly to the appropriate department. For filing Wills, go to Probate. When people die without a Will, go to Administration. To file an Accounting, go to the Accounting Department. To deal with Guardianships, go to the Guardianship Department. And if you’re there for some other reason such as to remove an Executor, or permission to sell real property, to search a residence or a safe deposit box for an original Will, go to the Miscellaneous Department.

•All Courts have signs posted with the appropriate room numbers in the Courthouse. If you’re going to the departments, you might want to check the Court website first to ensure the times the department is open and closed, and when they break for lunch.

•As I mentioned in a prior article, the state has made the vast majority of all Surrogate’s Court filings — from 2014 forward — available on WebSurrogate, so you might be able to save the trip and do this from the comfort of your home and office in some circumstances.

•Finally, you may be there to purchase certificates of letters, either for the first time or to purchase updated Letters, Letters Testamentary, or Letters of Administration. Again, you should visit the Court’s website in advance to go over payment methods, and if you’re paying in cash, exact change is always a good idea.

So, as seen above, the Surrogate’s Court provides many services and might seem intimidating to a first-time visitor. However, with a little bit of preparation and requests for help when need be, there’s no reason that you can’t walk into the Surrogate’s Court as a newcomer, find your way around and get exactly what you need. 

For more information on this topic, please contact me.