Many lawyers deal with Surrogates Court only peripherally. Questions about Estates and Surrogates Court come up often enough that it is worth knowing the basics. Here are 10 things worth knowing, even if you never set foot in Surrogates Court.
1. The Surrogate Court Clerk’s offices are broken down into departments:
– Probate (Wills and will contest issues)
– Administration (Appointment of fiduciary when there is no Will)
– Accounting (Issues concerning distribution of the Estate, a/k/a “fighting over the money”)
– Guardianship (protection of minors, personally and financially)
– Miscellaneous (all kinds of proceedings: entering an apartment, getting into a safe deposit box, removing fiduciaries, and more)
2. In probate cases there is a presumption that an attorney drawn and supervised will was validly executed. In a contest the burden of proof is on an objectant claiming improper execution. A non-attorney supervised will does not get this presumption, so the burden is on the proponent to prove proper execution. Sometimes this is a BIG hurdle. Note to any LegalZoom Will customers – Think about the above before you “save money” doing it yourself!
3. To the extent any beneficiary in an Administration (intestacy) proceeding does not waive the requirement of the fiduciary posting a bond, the proposed fiduciary must post a bond in proportion to the beneficiaries interest. VERY often proposed fiduciaries are not able to qualify for a bond.
4. If there is a delay in a probate or administration proceeding, and something important needs to be done (like selling a house or co-op), it often makes sense to obtain “preliminary letters”. It costs some money and requires a bond, but in the end it can save the Estate a lot of money.
5. Contrary to what many clients think, death does not absolve an Estate from creditor’s claims. A fiduciary must address claims they know about or had reason to know about. There are a lot of rules and caselaw on this, but the bottom line is fiduciaries do better when they address claims pro-actively. There are also some claims (funeral, administration expenses, taxes) which take priority over general creditor claims.
6. When a proceeding is filed to open a safe deposit box to search for a Will, the box is opened in the presence of a bank officer. The contents are inventoried, and if a Will is found it is delivered to the Court. If a box is being opened after a fiduciary is appointed, the bank officer should not observing. The fiduciary has a right to open the box on their own.
7. Nothing substantive can happen on a Surrogates Court proceeding until “jurisdiction is complete”. This occurs when all the interested parties have either signed a Waiver or been served. In a probate proceeding, all parties who would have an inheriting interest under intestacy are entitled to notice. This is true even if they are not named in the Will.
8. Whenever an interested party can’t speak for themselves (some examples are minors, disabled people, missing people, or “unknowns”) the Surrogate appoints a “Guardian-ad-Litem” for them. The Court fixes a fee for the Guardian-ad-Litem after they file a report, and they are paid out of the Estate. I’ve heard cynics question this, but in my view, this procedure is absolutely essential. I have served as a Guardian-ad-Litem many times, and take these assignments very seriously.
9. Estates worth under $30,000 (with or without a Will) can be handled under a simplified proceeding under Article 13 of the SCPA (Surrogates’s Court Procedures Act). These are designed to be handled without an attorney. Most clients can handle these on their own. Such an appointment enables a person to collect up to $30,000. However, they would not be able to sign a deed or transfer real estate with this type of appointment.
10. First cousins can inherit under intestacy, but generally they can’t become fiduciaries. In “cousin cases”, the Public Administrator is the fiduciary. These Estates ultimately become “kinship cases”. This is a fascinating specialty within Surrogates Court practice.
Sometimes Surrogates Court seems like it’s own little world. It has many unique rules and procedures. All of these are designed to ensure fairness and prevent premature or improper distributions. Once one gets the hang of it, it starts to make sense. Most of the time, anyway.