As probate attorneys, we mostly practice in New York Surrogate’s Court (sometimes misstated as “Surrogate Court”). When we tell people this, we are often met with confusion. Indeed, it’s surprising how many New Yorkers (including some attorneys!) don’t understand what Surrogate’s Court does. Or, how it differs from “regular court.”
(When New Yorkers refer to “court” generally, they’re usually referring to the State Supreme Court. That’s where criminal and civil disputes are tried. Yes, New York confusingly calls its lowest court the “Supreme Court.” But, that’s a discussion for another blog!)
Simply, New York Surrogate’s Court is a special court that handles estate matters. When someone dies, it is up to the “Surrogate”- the judge of this Court- to decide a number of issues. For example, she might decide whether a Will is valid, or who should be in charge of an Estate. Frequently, she decides disputes between beneficiaries.
Secondarily, the Court also handles adoption and guardianship issues. A handy way to remember the Court’s purview is to think of the word “surrogate.” It basically means substitute. So, if your legal issue involves substitution for someone- a deceased, a parent, etc.- it probably belongs in Surrogate’s Court!
There is a Surrogate’s Court in all 62 counties of New York. The Surrogate is elected countywide to terms of at least 10 years. Each county has one Surrogate, except New York County (Manhattan) and Kings (Brooklyn), which have two.
Below are links to the official sites for the Surrogate’s Courts within NYC:
New York Surrogate’s Court has many employees and departments. The Probate Department handles applications to offer Wills for probate. On the other hand, the Administration Department handles estates of people who died without a Will. The Accounting Department handles accountings filed by estate representatives asking for approval to distribute funds. Also, there’s the Miscellaneous Department, which handles everything from getting a Court order for opening a safe deposit box, to getting permission to sell a house.
Finally, every Surrogate’s Court has Guardianship and Adoption Departments. They generally handle the appointment of guardians for children under the age of 18, who no longer have a living parent. They also oversee inheritances or estates for minors and adults of any age who suffer from intellectual disability.
Surrogate’s Court clerks are knowledgeable and can give you pre-printed forms for simple or uncontested matters. However, most people choose to retain an attorney for Surrogate’s Court proceedings. Indeed, we do not recommend handling contested matters or estates over $50,000 without an attorney.
It’s a little ironic that New Yorkers know so little about Surrogate’s Court. It’s the one court that most people cannot avoid! You might never be charged with a crime, or sue someone. But, everyone dies and we’ve all lost loved ones. So, it’s a near certainty that we’ll all have some interaction with the Surrogate’s Court.
The information on this website is not legal advice. It is for information purposes only. No user of this site should act or refrain on the basis of this information without seeking legal counsel. This website does not create an attorney-client relationship.