The Surrogate's Court and Declaratory Judgments

, New York Law Journal

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C. Raymond Radigan and Jennifer F. Hillman
C. Raymond Radigan and Jennifer F. Hillman

The jurisdiction of the Surrogate's Court is limited to the powers granted to it by the New York State Legislature. However, there is a long-standing history and preference of the Legislature to expand the Surrogate's power so that litigation concerning the assets of a decedent's estate are handled economically and expeditiously in a single forum.

A 2010 case reviewed the interesting issue of whether the Surrogate's Court has the ability to issue a declaratory judgment pertaining to issues that affect a decedent's estate. The language of CPLR §3001 (which concerns declaratory judgments) appears to confer that power solely on the Supreme Courts, but this limitation does not reconcile with the clear legislative intent to promote economy and efficiency when dealing with a decedent's estate.

In Private Client Group v. Markey, 2010 WL 1821993 (Surr. Ct N.Y. Co April 15, 2010), the Nassau County Surrogate's Court analyzed the evolving jurisdiction of the Surrogate's Court and CPLR §3001 and concluded that while it could not issue a declaratory judgment, per se, it could issue a decision with the same practical effect. While we agree with the ultimate determination, we submit that the Surrogate's Court does in fact have the power to issue declaratory judgments when the issue involves a decedent's estate.

Historical Perspective

Pursuant to the New York State Constitution of 1894, the jurisdiction of the Surrogate's Court was limited to the powers granted to it by the Legislature. Notwithstanding this apparent limitation, throughout the 20th century the Legislature favored expansion of the jurisdictional power of the Surrogate's Court.1 It was the preferred policy that all questions concerning the administration of an estate be determined in the same court to avoid the delay of filing new pleadings in another court, and awaiting trial of new and separate actions.2

Despite this policy, the jurisdictional power of the Surrogate's Court was still plagued by uncertainty because of the language of the Constitution of 1894. Surrogates historically proceeded with extreme caution in assuming jurisdiction because of this uncertainty.

In response to these concerns the subject matter jurisdiction of the Surrogate's Court was significantly expanded by amendment to the New York State Constitution in 1962. Article VI section 12(d) to the amended constitution enumerated specific categories of the Surrogate's Court subject matter jurisdiction. More importantly, Section 12(d) implies that it is self-executing and does not require any further legislation—a drastic change from the Constitution of 1894.3

In 1966, the New York State Legislature exercised this new constitutionally granted power to expand the subject matter jurisdiction of the Surrogate's Court through the enactment of the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act (SCPA). SCPA §201(1) ensures the Surrogate's Court "has, is granted, and shall continue to be vested with all the jurisdiction conferred upon it by the Constitution of the State of New York, and all other authority and jurisdiction now or hereafter conferred upon the court by any general or special statute or provision of law."4 The Surrogate's Court also continues to exercise full and complete subject matter jurisdiction in law and in equity "to administer justice in all matters relating to estates and the affairs of decedents.5 Additionally, the court has the power to "determine all questions…arising between…the parties…over whom jurisdiction has been obtained as to any and all matters necessary to be determined…to make a full,…disposition of the matter…as justice requires."6

This policy of avoiding fragmented jurisdiction can also be found elsewhere within the SCPA. SCPA §209 confers so-called "incidental" powers to the Surrogate's Court which are not exclusive. SCPA §209(10) provides that "[i]n the exercise of its jurisdiction, the court shall have all 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."7

'Matter of Piccione'

The New York Court of Appeals examined the scope of the Surrogate Court's jurisdiction under SCPA 201 in the seminal case Matter of Piccione's Estate.8 In Piccione, the decedent had owned commercial property which he leased prior to his death. Shortly before the lease was to expire, the executors entered into an advantageous contract for the sale of the property to a third party, which was conditioned on the tenant vacating the premises.9 The sale date was scheduled for the same date that the lease was to terminate, but the tenants refused to vacate the premises on that day.10

After several unsuccessful efforts to force the tenants to vacate the commercial premises, the executors filed a summary proceeding in the District Court of Nassau County to recover possession.11 The District Court of Nassau County dismissed the summary proceeding because of a defect in the notice sent by the executors to the tenants. Faced with the imminent exercise of the purchaser's right to cancel, the executors brought a proceeding in Surrogate's Court, Nassau County, to direct the tenant to vacate and surrender the premises so that the closing could take place.12

The tenant opposed the proceeding arguing that the Surrogate's Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because it was not one of the courts mentioned in RPAPL §701(1).13 The Surrogate's Court disagreed and reasoned that the proceeding related to the affairs of decedent regardless of whether RPAPL 701(1) listed the court.14 The court ordered the tenants to vacate the premises.15 Tenant appealed; the Appellate Division reversed and leave was granted to the Court of Appeals.16

The New York Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the Surrogate's Court order.17 The Court of Appeals declared that the grant of jurisdiction on the Surrogate's Court is broad enough to include the summary proceeding involved in the case because it "touched" the affairs of a decedent.18 The court explained, "[a]bsent the need for specific statutory authorization for a particular proceeding, the emphasis now shifted so that for the Surrogate's Court to decline jurisdiction, it should be abundantly clear that the matter in controversy in no way affects the affairs of a decedent or the administration of his estate."19

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