New York’s Surrogate’s Court is not a court of general jurisdiction. In contrast, many states only have trial courts of general jurisdiction which have subject matter jurisdiction over anything a court in the state could hear. In these states, the trial courts are often divided into groups to hear certain types of cases, such as a probate division and a civil division, but these divisions are for administrative convenience and do not reflect differences in subject matter jurisdiction.
What Is The Jurisdiction of the New York Surrogate’s Court?
The New York State Constitution and statutes, primarily the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”), delineate the Surrogate’s Court jurisdiction. The New York Constitution at Article VI, Section 12, provides the basis for the organization and jurisdiction of the New York Surrogate’s Court:
[Surrogate’s courts; judges; jurisdiction]
§12. a. The surrogate’s court is continued in each county in the state. There shall be at least one judge of the surrogate’s court in each county and such number of additional judges of the surrogate’s court as may be provided by law.
b. The judges of the surrogate’s court shall be residents of the county and shall be chosen by the electors of the county.
c. The terms of the judges of the surrogate’s court in the city of New York shall be fourteen years, and in other counties ten years, from and including the first day of January next after their election.
d. The surrogate’s court shall have jurisdiction over all actions and proceedings relating to the affairs of decedents, probate of wills, administration of estates and actions and proceedings arising thereunder or pertaining thereto, guardianship of the property of minors, and such other actions and proceedings, not within the exclusive jurisdiction of the supreme court, as may be provided by law.
e. The surrogate’s court shall exercise such equity jurisdiction as may be provided by law.
f. The provisions of this section shall in no way limit or impair the jurisdiction of the supreme court as set forth in section seven of this article.
Article 2 of the SCPA creates and clarifies the jurisdiction of the New York Surrogate’s Court. Section 201, paragraph 3, creates the sweeping power of the Surrogate’s Court over the estates of decedents:
The court shall continue to exercise full and complete general jurisdiction in law and in equity to administer justice in all matters relating to estates and the affairs of decedents, and upon the return of any process to try and determine all questions, legal or equitable, arising between any or all of the parties to any action or proceeding, or between any party and any other person having any claim or interest therein, over whom jurisdiction has been obtained as to any and all matters necessary to be determined in order to make a full, equitable and complete disposition of the matter by such order or decree as justice requires.
Other parts of the SCPA confer jurisdiction to the New York Surrogate’s Court over inter vivos trusts, guardianship, and adoption.
Matter of Piccione
Given the Constitutional grant of jurisdiction over all matters “relating to the affairs of decedents,” the New York Surrogate’s Court jurisdiction seemed quite sweeping, but was not definitively determined until the New York Court of Appeals issued the seminal opinion of Matter of Piccione, 57 N.Y.2d 278 (1982). In Piccione, the executors of the estate executed a contract to sell a rental property owned by the estate. The contract required that the property be vacant, but the holdover tenant refused to leave. The executors sought to evict the holdover tenant in Surrogate’s Court. The tenant contended that the New York Surrogate’s Court did not have jurisdiction to handle the eviction pursuant to the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, which did not grant jurisdiction over evictions to the Surrogate’s Court. In confirming jurisdiction of the Surrogate’s Court, the Court of Appeals explained:
[I]t would seem to follow that [the eviction], brought by the executors in the process of attempting to wind up the administration of the estate, is cognizable in the Surrogate’s Court. It is undisputed that the tenants were to be evicted so that the premises could be sold. It is further not denied that the proceeds of the sale were to go to the estate and no doubt it will be the Surrogate’s Court which will ultimately decide how these will be distributed. Thus, it can hardly be said that this controversy “in no way affects the affairs of the decedent or the administration of the estate”.
Despite all of this, it nevertheless is contended that RPAPL 701 operates to divest the Surrogate’s Court of jurisdiction. True it is that the Surrogate’s Court is not a forum denominated in the statute. But it is clear from the legislative history that the courts which were identified were not intended to enjoy exclusive jurisdiction (Fourth Preliminary Report of Advisory Committee on Practice and Procedure, NY Legis Doc, 1960, No. 20, p 541). As with the Supreme Court, which, though also unlisted, may nonetheless look to the Constitution as an independent source of authority, so may the Surrogate’s Court, procedurally unlimited as it is in its constitutional authority in matters “relating to the affairs of decedents”. And, since the main reasons for listing courts in RPAPL 701 was to encourage the bringing of such actions in lower courts (see, e.g., Matter of 3505 Realty Corp. v Weinberger, 41 Misc 2d 254), it would be counterproductive to interpret it as to intend the fragmentation of the treatment of the affairs of a decedent’s estate (cf. Lun Far Co. v Aylesbury Assoc., 40 AD2d 794). Fundamentally, of course, statutes are not to be interpreted to curtail constitutionally based jurisdiction (People ex rel. Mayor of City of N. Y. v Nichols, 79 NY 582, 590).
The tenant in the Piccione case commended a malicious prosecution case against the executors in the Supreme Court, and the executors sought to transfer the proceeding to the Surrogate’s Court. The Court of Appeals held that the New York Surrogate’s Court did not have jurisdiction over the malicious prosecution action:
Now reaching the action for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, each a tort involving the commission of an act which is motivated by an improper purpose (see Board of Educ. v Farmingdale Classroom Teachers Assn., 38 NY2d 397, 400; Prosser, Torts [4th ed], §§ 119, 121), it is a long-established general principle that an executor who has committed such an act, even in the course of the administration of the estate, is liable therefor in an individual rather than representative capacity (see Kirchner v Muller, 280 NY 23; see, generally, Estate’s Liability for Tort of Executor, Ann., 82 ALR3d 892, 950-952). Therefore, unlike the eviction proceeding, at least in the present context, it cannot be said to relate to either the affairs of the decedent or the administration of his estate.
What Issues Can The New York Surrogate’s Court Handle?
Article 2, Section 209 of the SCPA explicitly enumerates a number of issues the Surrogate’s Court can handle:
The court has power:
1. To open, vacate, modify or set aside any decree or order of the court directing distribution of the property of an estate which was made prior to the probate of and without knowledge of a will which affects such distribution, and in the same or a different proceeding, and on notice to the persons or the fiduciaries of the persons to whom the property has been distributed, to make such further and different direction as to such distribution as justice may require, and as an incident thereto, order the refund of any property theretofore distributed erroneously.
2. To sign any decision, decree or order, with its usual signature or initials, and all decisions, decrees or orders heretofore or hereafter so signed shall be valid and binding.
3. To transfer for trial in the surrogate’s court having jurisdiction any action or proceeding pending in any court other than the supreme court, which affects or relates to the administration of an estate and to receive for trial any such action or proceeding pending in the supreme court which may by order of the latter court be transferred to the surrogate’s court on the prior order of that court and to transfer any action or proceeding other than one which has been previously transferred to it or which affects or relates to the administration of an estate, to any other court, except the supreme court, having jurisdiction of the subject matter in any other judicial district or county provided such other court has jurisdiction over the classes of persons named as parties.
4. To determine a decedent’s interest in any property claimed to constitute a part of his gross estate subject to estate tax, or to be property available for distribution under his will or in intestacy or for payment of claims, and to determine the rights of any persons claiming an interest therein, as against the decedent, or as between themselves, and to construe any instruments made by him affecting such property.
5. To settle the account of a fiduciary of a common trust fund as provided in the banking law.
6. To determine any and all matters relating to lifetime trusts.
7. To entertain a proceeding under EPTL 8-1.1 .
8. To dismiss any proceeding which the petitioner has neglected to prosecute diligently.
9. To determine any unfinished business pending before its predecessor in office and to sign or certify papers or records left uncompleted or unsigned by its predecessor.
10. In the exercise of its jurisdiction, the court shall have all of the powers that the supreme court would have in like actions and proceedings including, but not limited to, such incidental powers as are necessary to carry into effect all powers expressly conferred herein.
11. The enumeration of powers herein shall not be deemed exclusive.
Under New York’s court structure, the Supreme Courts in New York are courts of general jurisdiction, meaning that those courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the jurisdiction of the Surrogate’s Court. Nevertheless, jurisdiction is preferred in Surrogate’s Court. As explained by the Court of Appeals in Raymond v. Estate of Davis, 248 N.Y. 67 (1928):
“Concentration of jurisdiction as to decedents’ estates” (per Foley, S., in Matter of Haigh) is the purpose clearly revealed in the statutory scheme. “The State has empowered surrogates in unmistakable language, and it is not the function of the courts to discover or to fashion reasons for thwarting the manifest policy” (per Thomas, J., in Matter of Coombs, 185 App. Div. 312, 314).
If the Surrogate’s Court is the first court in New York to exercise jurisdiction over a matter properly before it, the Supreme Courts, as well as other Surrogate’s Courts in the state, must defer jurisdiction to the first Surrogate’s Court to take up the matter. Matter of Tabler, 389 N.Y.S.2d 899 (3d Dept. 1976).