Throughout years past, it was common in Surrogate’s Court for petitions to be filed in various proceedings and for decisions and orders to be rendered fairly quickly. Typically, the parties would not appear in front of the court again, except in connection with New York estate tax motions. The few matters that were contested by the parties would very often be resolved by settlement or a court determination after a motion, trial or a hearing. However, the growing population of New York combined with the down-sizing of the court’s staff has caused this process to become a slower version of itself. As highlighted in the article published in the New York Law Journal, titled “Mediation as an Alternative to Estate Litigation” by C. Raymond Radigan and Moira Jabir, mediation and arbitration can offer many benefits to trusts and estates matters. As such, an initiative has begun in Surrogate’s Court, among many other courts, to offer the benefits of mediation to all Surrogate’s Court cases, which is encouraged by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.
Historically, there were very few matters that remained in Surrogate’s Court for long. For instance, Nassau County probated about 3,800 wills a year and handled less than 1,000 administration proceedings in the 1980s and 1990s. Jurisdiction would be promptly obtained over all necessary parties and matters completed quickly. There was even a joke throughout the courthouse to this effect—your relative could pass away on a Friday, the petition be filed on Monday, the will would be admitted to probate, letters would issue and distributions would be made on Tuesday, and the children could go buy a new vehicle and go to the funeral in style on Wednesday. Although a bit exaggerated, the reality of the courts at that time was if everyone cooperated, which they usually did, there would be no delays and matters could be finalized expeditiously. Only relatively few matters were delayed, either because infants were involved or there was a disagreement among family members resulting in litigation.
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