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How to File a Case After the Death of a Loved One in Surrogate’s Court on Your Own (ProSe)

by Lillian Claudio-Blum, Esq. January 4, 2021

This year has been a challenging one for many New Yorkers. The pandemic has suddenly taken many lives, and on top of grieving the loss of a loved one, many of our Planning and Estates Law Project clients are navigating the court system to handle the estates of family members that have passed. The processes involved have become more complex as courts have also been affected by the pandemic while working with limited staff and resources. So, if you are a person of limited means in New York City, how do you file a petition in court to handle your loved ones’ estate yourself?

The person who dies is referred to as the “decedent”. A person closely related to the decedent, by blood or marriage, also called a “distribute”, must go to the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the decedent lived or was “domiciled” to file a petition to become the administrator or executor of the decedent’s estate. If the decedent did not leave a will, referred to as intestate, you are filing an administration petition. If the decedent left a will, referred to as testate, then the executor needs to probate the will. The executor is the person who is named in the will.

A lot of people hire an attorney to file the petitions. However, New Yorkers who can’t afford a lawyer, can file these themselves, and when they do, they are referred to as a “pro se litigant” or a “self-represented litigant”. You can file the petition by getting the forms from the Surrogate’s Court website and selecting the county where the decedent lived. Once you fill out the required petition and supporting documents, you need to file them in the respective court. Since the COVID outbreak, the courts are providing limited access so you must contact the respective court or read their instructions on their website for information on how to file. A pro se litigant can file the paperwork by dropping it off at the respective Surrogate’s Courthouse, mailing it, or e-filing using the NYSCEF website. Then, the court staff reviews and processes the paperwork.

Due to the increased number of deaths during the pandemic, an overwhelming number of filings are being processed so the wait is longer than usual. You must be patient. If you need your case handled faster, you may want to file an affidavit of urgency to let the court know that you need something done immediately. It will be up to the Judge to decide if your case rises to an immediate decision.

Although you have the right to file papers in court as a pro se litigant, you must understand the law and procedure. The court clerks cannot give legal advice when you are representing yourself. For that reason, you must be familiar with the law and know how the law is applied to your case.

If you need help, the Planning and Estate Law Project (PELP) at the City Bar Justice Center offers free legal assistance to low-income individuals in New York City with probate and estate matters, among other services. When you call PELP at 212-382-6756 or fill out an online intake, we can review your case, answer your questions, and offer legal guidance. We may also be able to refer your case to a volunteer attorney who will not represent you in court, but will assist with filling out the petition and supporting documents so you can file the paperwork correctly. It is essential to know what you are doing before you file anything in court. If you do not follow instructions, your petition will be delayed. Contact us today if you need assistance.

Lillian Claudio-Blum, Esq. was the Staff Attorney of the Planning and Estates Law Project at the City Bar Justice Center during 2020 and helped dozens of pro se Surrogates Court petitioners during the pandemic.

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