The Justice System 101: Inside the Surrogate Courts

The New York County Surrogate Courthouse.  Wikimedia Commons
The New York County Surrogate Courthouse.
Wikimedia Commons

Towering over the northwest corner of Chambers Street, between Centre and Elk streets, sits the historical New York County Surrogate Courthouse.

The seven-story, steel-framed edifice features 54 hand-carved statues with a granite facade and intricate marble interior — and was also the home of New York City’s Hall of Records until 1962. Now it is the official site for the managing of probates and estate proceedings (among other duties) in the New York State Unified Court System.

Every county in the state of New York has a Surrogate Court— each with the purpose of adjudicating cases involving the affairs of decedents, which includes the validation of wills, estate administration for New Yorkers who died without a will, as well as adoption proceedings. Alongside the Surrogate Courts, the Family and Supreme Courts have equal power over guardianships of infants.

Each of New York’s 62 counties has one elected surrogate judge, with the exception of New York County (Manhattan) and Kings County, which each have two. In New York County, the Surrogate judges are Hon. Nora S. Anderson and Hon. Rita Mella.

Both judges oversee a variety of complex cases on a daily basis, answering the court’s most commonly asked questions, which are: What happens if my loved one dies without a will? Who may be appointed to handle an estate proceeding? I am the Executor of a will, how do I get the will admitted to probate?

All of these inquiries can also be answered at the Surrogate Court’s Help Center in Room 302, which is available as a source of information from Monday to Friday, 9 am to noon and from 2 to 4 pm.

In addition, the Records Room remains open to the public (by appointment only), giving visitors access to records dating back as late as 1674, including documents signed by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

In fact, The New York Times reported in January 2017 that a substantial set of records were being transferred to the New York County Surrogate Courthouse Hall of Records, however upon the box’s arrival, they merely accounted for about 10% of the total collection.

While full access to the Hall of Records has been restored, a few other areas of the courthouse were subject to COVID-19 related restrictions. In recent months, safety precautions have been implemented to protect the health of employees as well as court users. Current in person visitors are now serviced one at a time, and are required to wear a mask and submit to temperature screening and questioning upon arrival.

Similarly, proceedings have been modified to where most trials and hearings have continued, however they are now conducted remotely, with individuals appearing virtually using Microsoft Teams.

With the court’s staff having returned to work in person on a full-time basis, it appears as though the Surrogate Courthouse is once again continuing to affect public good.

And according to Chief Judge Janet Difiore, “the New York State Court System provides essential justice services to the people of the State of New York.”

More from Around NYC