Frequently Asked Questions

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What are the common words or terms I should know?
  1. A “decedent” is a person who has died.
  2. An “estate” consists of all of the property of a decedent.
  3. The “Surrogate’s Court” is the court in New York state that, among other things, oversees the estates of decedents. In other states, this court may be known as the Probate Court. Each county in the State of New York has its own Surrogate’s Court. The New York County Surrogate’s Court is responsible for the estate of any person who died while domiciled in Manhattan.
  4. “Domicile” is the permanent place where a decedent resided. If a decedent was temporarily located elsewhere, or had more than one residence, the domicile is that place where the decedent intended to return.
  5. A “fiduciary” (also known as a “personal representative”) is a person who has been appointed by the New York County Surrogate’s Court to administer the estate of a decedent. A fiduciary acts like a “manager” of the estate, collecting the decedent’s assets, paying bills and expenses, and distributing the decedent’s remaining property to his heirs or to the persons named in the Will. A fiduciary is called an “executor,” if he or she is acting under the terms of a Will. A fiduciary appointed to administer the estate of a decedent who had no Will is called an “administrator.”
  6. “Probate” refers to the process by which a decedent’s Will is recognized as valid by the Surrogate’s Court. When the Surrogate’s Court determines that a Will is valid, it “admits the Will to probate” and usually appoints the executor designated by the decedent in the Will to administer the estate.
  7. “Intestacy” refers to the situation in which a person dies without a Will, or dies with a Will that for various reasons is denied probate (that is, the Will is not recognized as valid by the Surrogate’s Court). Where no Will is admitted to probate, the Court will appoint an administrator to administer the estate.
  8. A “distributee” is any person entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent, if the decedent did not have a valid Will (that is, the decedent died “intestate”). Distributees also are called “heirs.” Rules set forth under New York statutes establish who are the distributees of a decedent. Distributees can only be a decedent’s blood relatives or persons adopted into the decedent’s family. To be a distributee, you must be in the category of persons closest in blood relationship to the decedent (in the order defined by New York law). Anyone more remote in their relationship to the decedent than first cousin once removed cannot be a distributee under New York law. (For example, second cousins cannot be distributees.)

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What is the Office of the Public Administrator?
  1. The Public Administrator is a legally mandated office of county government for every county in City of New York. Each of the boroughs in the City of New York has its own Office of the Public Administrator. The New York County Public Administrator handles the estates of persons who died domiciled in New York County.
  2. The Public Administrators operate their offices and administer estates in accordance with the guidelines and procedures adopted by the Administrative Board for the Offices of Public Administrators. The Administrative Board, comprising thirteen (13) judges and attorneys, is authorized to act by Section 1128 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act.
  3. The Public Administrator applies to be the administrator and serves as fiduciary to collect and distribute the assets of the estates of deceased residents.
  4. The Public Administrator is also known as the “default fiduciary”: The Office will administer an estate where no one else wants to or is able to do so. The most common scenarios in which the Public Administrator will administer a decedent’s estate are:
    1. Decedent died without a Will, and there are no known distributees;
    2. Decedent died without a Will, and the distributees are first cousins or first cousins once removed; under New York law, the Public Administrator usually has priority to serve as a fiduciary before first cousins;
    3. Decedent died without a Will, and the distributees are closer in relationship than first cousins, but, for other reasons, are not able or willing to serve, or are disqualified from serving; and
    4. Decedent dies with a Will, but the nominated executor(s) is unwilling or unable to serve. The Surrogate’s Court appoints the Public Administrator to administer the estate in accordance with decedent’s wishes under the Will.

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Can I be a Fiduciary or Administer an Estate Without Being Appointed by the Surrogate’s Court?
No. Only persons appointed as a fiduciary by the Surrogate’s Court are authorized to act as the fiduciary of an estate.

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How Does a Person Get Appointed as a Fiduciary by the Surrogate’s Court?
You must file a document called a “Petition,” along with other documents, as required by law. If the total assets to be administered are less than $30,000, the estate may qualify to be administered as a “Small Estate.” Special simplified procedures govern the administration of Small Estates, and can be found in Article 13 of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act. If the total estate assets are more than $30,000, the procedures are a bit more complicated. You may wish to consult an attorney, although one is not required. The Petition and other required forms may be obtained from the Administration Department of the New York County Surrogate’s Court, 31 Chambers Street, Room 505, New York, NY 10007, (646) 386-5005.

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Does the Public Administrator Need to be Appointed as Administrator by the Surrogate’s Court Before Acting?
The rules governing when the Public Administrator can begin to act as the administrator of an estate are different from the rules that apply to individuals. The Public Administrator is permitted to act without the Court’s authorization to collect and administer assets up to the amount of $30,000. Once it appears that the assets of an estate exceed $30,000, the Public Administrator will file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court seeking to be appointed as administrator.

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How Does the Public Administrator First Receive Notice of an Estate? How Can I Report a Death to the Public Administrator?
The Public Administrator receives notice of an estate in various ways:
  1. If a person dies in a hospital or care facility with no known next of kin, the hospital or care facility is required under Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 1113 to notify the Public Administrator.
  2. The Medical Examiner of the City of New York will notify the Public Administrator if any individual in the morgue has not been claimed by the next of kin for burial within 30 days.
  3. The director of a funeral home is required under Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act Section 1113 to notify the Public Administrator of the death of a person with no known next of kin.
  4. A Report of Death is filed with the Public Administrator. The Report of Death may be completed by any person (including a friend, relative or creditor) who wishes to notify the Public Administrator of the death of a decedent. The Report of Death Form is available for download in PDF format here. Typically, the person completing the Report of Death believes that there is no one other than the Public Administrator available or willing to act as the fiduciary of the decedent’s estate.
  5. When the Public Administrator receives notice of an estate, the Office will immediately attempt to determine whether there are any known next of kin and their relationship to the decedent. If there are known next of kin closer in relationship that first cousins, then the Public Administrator will usually not take any action until the next of kin are given every reasonable opportunity to take over the handling of the decedent’s burial and the affairs of the estate.

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What Are The Responsibilities Of the Public Administrator?
  1. Location of Beneficiaries and Heirs:
    1. When it appears that no one with a higher authority is acting to handle a decedent's estate, it is the duty of the Public Administrator to make a diligent search for a Will and the names and addresses of heirs. If a Will is found, the named executor is notified.
    2. If no Will is found, then the Public Administrator will give notice to known distributees of the decedent to determine whether they are willing or able to handle the estate. If there are no heirs or the heirs are unable or unwilling to act, the Public Administrator may handle the disposition of the estate.
    1. Possession of Assets:
    2. If no personal representative has been appointed, the Public Administrator has the responsibility to take prompt possession or control of the property of a decedent. All assets of a decedent's estate are brought under the control of the Public Administrator when a determination is made that the Public Administrator will handle the estate.
  2. Payment of Debts:
    1. The Public Administrator tries to ascertain the debts of each estate and notify all known creditors. Creditors’ claims are sent out, and a minimum of seven months is allowed for creditors to file a claim against the estate before the estate can be closed.
  3. Sale of Personal and Real Property:
    1. The New York County Public Administrator liquidates all property from estates in order to pay the debts of those estates and make proper distribution. All real property, jewelry, automobiles and boats are sold at public auctions.
  4. Distribution of Assets:
    1. The Public Administrator must attempt to distribute the assets of an estate to those who are entitled to inherit them. When there is no Will, the proper order of those persons who are entitled to inherit an estate’s assets is listed in the Estates Powers and Trust Laws Section 4-1.1. However, determining who is entitled to inherit what and locating those individuals can be time-consuming.
  5. In some cases, those entitled to inherit have passed away. In other cases, there may be no current address for heirs or beneficiaries of a Will located among the decedent’s possessions. These problems can delay the time of distribution.
  6. After all assets are collected and the expenses of administration and valid debts and claims are paid, the Public Administrator will file an accounting with the New York County Surrogate’s Court. The accounting is a document that reflects the actions taken by the Public Administrator on behalf of the estate. It details every penny collected and paid out. Persons with an interest in the estate, including distributees and claimants, are given notice of the accounting. The balance of the estate will be paid to the distributees (i.e., heirs) of the decedent, as determined by the Surrogate’s Court in the accounting proceeding. Once the estate has been distributed, the Public Administrator is discharged as the fiduciary.

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How Can I File a Claim Against an Estate Being Administered by the Public Administrator?
You must complete and file a verified Claim Affidavit Form that must be properly notarized. The Claim Affidavit Form must be accompanied by sufficient documentation supporting the claim:

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What Can I Do If I was the Decedent’s Landlord?
If the decedent lived in a rental apartment, the landlord may file a Report of Death with the Public Administrator. If there are no known next of kin, then the Public Administrator will inventory the apartment, take any property of value, and release the apartment to the landlord. If there are known next of kin, or if a Will is found in the apartment, then the Public Administrator will usually not take any further action, unless the Office is appointed administrator of the estate by the Surrogate’s Court. The landlord may be required to file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court seeking the appointment of the Public Administrator.

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How Can I Retrieve a Deceased Person’s Property from the Police Department?
  • Once the Police Department seals the deceased person’s residence and gives you a “Property Clerk Invoice,”:
    • If there is no Will AND you are a distributee/next-of-kin, go to the Administration Department, Surrogate’s Court, 31 Chambers St., Room 505, New York, N.Y. 10007, (646) 386-5005. Bring Death Certificate and Property Clerk Invoice.
    • If there is a Will AND you are a distributee/next-of-kin AND the estate is valued at less than $30,000, go to the Administration Department, Surrogate’s Court, 31 Chambers St., Room 505, New York, N.Y. 10007, (646) 386-5005. Bring Death Certificate, Property Clerk Invoice and original Will. Depending on your relationship to the decedent, the size of the decedent’s estate and the amount of property being held by the Police, the Administration Department may refer you to the Public Administrator, at 31 Chambers St., Suite 311, NY, NY (212) 788-8430. The Public Administrator administers estates when no one else is willing, able or legally qualified to do so.
    • If there is a Will AND the value of the estate is greater than $30,000, go to the Probate Department, Surrogate’s Court, 31 Chambers St., Room 504, NY, NY (646) 386-5004. Bring Death Certificate, Property Clerk Invoice and original Will.
  • If you need the Public Administrator’s help to obtain the property’s release, you must provide the Public Administrator with:
    1. Property Clerk Invoice(s)
    2. Decedent’s Death Certificate
    3. Photo Identification
    4. Funeral Bill for the decedent, stamped “Paid in Full”

    If you are not the “funeral creditor” (the distributee/next-of-kin who actually paid for the funeral), you will also need to provide a Notarized Letter from the funeral creditor stating that you are authorized to receive the police property on behalf of the funeral creditor.

  • Once you have a “Certificate of Voluntary Administration,” “Letters of Administration,” OR “Letters Testamentary” from the Surrogate’s Court OR a release from the Public Administrator’s office, then you can retrieve the decedent’s property from the Police Department. However, the Public Administrator will not issue a release for cash over $2,500, keys or a sealed residence. Speak to a Surrogate’s Court clerk for further explanation.

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Categories of Estates Handled by the Public Administrator
  1. Small Estates
    1. Estates not exceeding $30,000.00* in value. The Public Administrator may act without Court authorization to marshal and distribute the assets of these estates, pursuant to Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act.
    2. Estates valued at $30,000.01* and above. The Public Administrator may act after receiving Letters of Administration.
  2. Accountings
    1. Small Estates under $30,000* are closed by informal accountings to the interested parties.
    2. Formal Estates $30,000* and over are closed by judicial accounting. Notice is given to all interested parties and submitted to the Surrogate for Court approval.
    3. *For decedents dying on or after January 1, 2009.

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Does the Public Administrator receive a fee for its services?
Yes. The Public Administrator receives the same commission as any other person who acts as administrator. The amount of the commission is fixed by statute (Surrogate Court’s Procedure Act Sections 1106 and 2307). It is calculated on a sliding scale, based on the assets of an estate, starting at 5% of the first $100,000 and going down to 2% of any assets over $5 million. The Public Administrator’s commissions are turned over to the general fund of the City of New York.The Public Administrator of New York County also receives an additional 1% of the gross assets of an estate, pursuant to SCPA §1106, which are applied toward the reasonable and necessary expenses of the Office.

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Are There Any Other Fees Charged to the Estate?
Yes. The Public Administrator hires an attorney to represent it and provide legal services relating to the administration of the estates handled by the Office. The attorneys are paid a legal fee, which is governed by a schedule adopted by the Administrative Board and is calculated on a sliding scale based upon the gross assets of the estate. The scale starts at 6% of the first $750,000 of assets and decreases in incremental steps to 1.5% of any assets over $5 million. All commissions and legal fees are subject to the approval of the New York County Surrogate’s Court.The Public Administrator may also retain an accountant to prepare any income tax returns required for the estate.

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Who are the Public Administrator’s Attorneys?
The Public Administrator of New York County generally retains two law firms:  Schram, Graber & Opell, P.C. and Finkelstein & Virga, P.C.

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Do the Public Administrator’s Attorneys Also Represent the Distributees?
No. The Public Administrator’s attorneys will provide you with information about the estate, but they cannot represent you in a legal proceeding. As a distributee, you may be required to present proof of your status at a hearing in the Surrogate’s Court. If you do not know of an attorney, and wish to retain one, you may contact the City Bar Justice Center’s Planning and Estates Law Project at (212) 382-6756, or the Association of the Bar of the City of New York referral service at http://www.ilawyer.com/iLawyer-com.

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