First, become familiar with words and definitions used in such cases:
Surrogate’s Court is the Court which has jurisdiction over decedent estates;
The dead person is referred to as the “Decedent”;
The property left by the dead person is called the “Estate”;
Learn the difference in meaning when a person dies “Testate” or “Intestate” –
“Testate” means that the decedent died with a Will directing and instructing what is to be done with his or her “Estate” property and, who are the named and identified beneficiaries of his or her specific property.
“Intestate” means the decedent died without a Will, whereupon the law decides how and to whom the “Estate” property will be distributed – these takers are known as “Distributees”.
When the decedent dies testate (with a Will), the person who will be responsible to manage and carry out the terms of the Will is referred to as the “Executor”, namely a person named in the Will by the deceased to carry out these duties.
When the decedent dies intestate (without a Will), the person who will be responsible to carry out the duties according to law, is referred to as the “Administrator”. In determining who shall be the Administrator, the law looks to the closest family member of the decedent. Normally a surviving spouse will be appointed, unless ineligible by way of abandonment or otherwise. Thus, law first honors the spouse of the deceased; then children, then parents, then brothers and sisters, then nephews and nieces, then uncles and aunts and cousins. If none of these persons are available, the Surrogate may appoint a“Public Administrator” to process the estate.
Please also note that property assets left by the decedent may be subject to an “Estate Tax” both Federal and State.
Needless to say, the foregoing is not intended as a “Do It Yourself Guide”, but merely a starting point of reference for those who must cope with the difficult situation. The Executor and or Administrator has the duty to preserve the assets of the estate and for this reason it is wise for them to consult an attorney on their behalf in performing their required duties as outlined by law.