Jurisdiction Of The Surrogate’S Court

The Surrogate’s Court is unusual among New York courts in that it is a court of record, with all the attendant powers; it has a constitutionally and statutorily defined range of jurisdiction over a wide range of matters, it is subject to no monetary limits, and its process may operate worldwide. It is also a court of equity. As such, it may order all the traditional equitable remedies, but only if the court was properly called upon in the first place. Was the court requested to do something it could be asked to do? Was the correct court in the correct venue asked to do it? Was the court’s process effective? Did it effectively notify all necessary and proper parties so as to bind them to the results of the court’s actions and subject them to enforcement of the court’s orders and decrees?

The Surrogate’s Court is a court of record1 with broad but limited jurisdiction insofar as the scope of its jurisdiction is defined by the state constitution. The constitutional mandate is as follows:

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. The Surrogate’s Court shall exercise such equity jurisdiction as may be provided by law.

“The Court, however, has only such power as is conferred upon it by statute.” Thus, the legislature has the power to add to the jurisdiction of the Surrogate’s Court, except that it cannot empower the court to deal with matters exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

These jurisdictional limits are elastic and have on occasion been read expansively by the Surrogates. In In re Piccione, the Court of Appeals held that if a matter relates to the affairs of a decedent or to the administration of the estate, the Surrogate’s Court has jurisdiction to determine it.

The Court’s jurisdiction, however, does not extend to adjudications of disputes between living persons, even if such disputes are tangentially related to estates. The Supreme Court has general original jurisdiction in law and equity and has exclusive jurisdiction over crimes prosecuted by indictments. The Supreme Court and the Surrogate’s Court have concurrent jurisdiction in matters involving decedents’ estates. The Supreme Court may admit a will to probate, take the account of an executor and grant specific performance of a contract involving the execution of mutual or joint wills. It would be unusual, however, for the Supreme Court to exercise its jurisdiction in these cases or others commonly regarded as Surrogate’s Court matters.

Certain matters (e.g., ERISA claims involving New York estates) may involve mixed questions of state and federal law, and federal jurisdiction may preempt that of the Surrogate’s Court.10 Where federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over matters relating to trusts and estates, however, they may abstain from exercising that jurisdiction and defer to the Surrogate’s Court, based on an analysis of the following factors: (1) the assumption of jurisdiction over a res; (2) the inconvenience of the forum; (3) the avoidance of piecemeal litigation; (4) the order in which the actions were filed; (5) the law that provides the rule of decision; and (6) the protection of the federal plaintiffs’ rights.

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