Brooklyn Boro

Why surrogate judges matter: A voter’s primer

June 19, 2019 Noah Goldberg
The Democratic primary is on June 25. Eagle file photo by Ned Berke

Brooklynites will head to the polls on June 25 to vote in a primary for a number of lesser known judgeships, including for a seat on the Surrogate’s Court in Brooklyn. Before filling out those bubbles, it might help to know: what is Surrogate’s Court?

Surrogate’s Court is for the dead — mostly. When someone dies, they usually leave things behind, namely: money and property. Whether or not they have made out a will before they die, in New York, their estates are handled in Surrogate’s Court.

There is a Surrogate’s Court in each borough of New York City. They are overseen by elected judges known as — you guessed it — surrogates. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, there are two surrogates. In the other boroughs, there is just one. Surrogate’s Court judges serve 14-year terms in New York City.

[The Democratic primary for Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court election is on June 25. Find your polling site here.]

The Surrogate’s Court handles the probate of wills — meaning, when someone dies and leaves a will, it must be proven valid in Surrogate’s Court before the estate can be dispersed among heirs. This can be a simple process, say, if a single parent dies and bequeaths their estate to an only child. Or it can be complicated, say, if a father who bore an illegitimate son gives his estate to his two children born during his marriage. If the illegitimate son wants to challenge to get part of the estate, that dispute over the will would be handled in Surrogate’s Court.

Some of the most common disputes over wills in Surrogate’s Court arise over whether or not the deceased was subject to undue influence when creating the will — or that they lacked “testamentary capacity” to make out a valid will.

Disputes in Surrogate’s Court are handled as civil cases, with the two sides arguing against each other in front of the surrogate.

The Surrogate’s Court also handles estates when someone dies without first making out a will. This is known as dying intestate.

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When someone dies intestate — if no one comes forward or is qualified to become the administrator of the estate — their property is taken over by the Public Administrator’s Office, a city agency that handles the estate until they can figure out who is the rightful heir. The public administrator, who runs the office, is appointed by the surrogate.

Critics say that this power leads to a system in which lawyers vying for the position curry favor with judges and reap huge rewards.

The Public Administrator’s Office has struggled with allegations of corruption, like when one employee stole $78,000 from eight estates. One Brooklyn surrogate was booted from the court in 2005 when it was revealed he appointed his law school buddy to the office and then allowed that friend to reap millions of dollars in excessive fees.

Another Brooklyn surrogate, Frank Seddio, who now leads the Brooklyn Democratic Party, resigned in 2007 over allegations that he misused campaign funds.

In fact, Surrogate’s Courts in New York have had such a reputation for corruption that, in 2005, one critic said they should be abolished entirely, and their duties folded into the state’s Supreme Courts. That critic is now working on the campaign of Elena Baron, a candidate in this year’s Surrogate’s Court race.

The Surrogate’s Court has a few other duties besides handling the estates of the dead.

Under sometimes less macabre circumstances, the Surrogate’s Court is responsible for approving adoptions — making sure that the adoptions follow all laws and that they are in the best interest of the child being adopted. The court also handles the cases of minors who inherit money.

The Surrogate’s Court also appoints guardians for people over the age of 18 who are “intellectually disabled or developmentally disabled.

The Democratic primary for the Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court election is on June 25. Find your polling site here.

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