In New Jersey, the Surrogate’s Court serves as the probate court and handles matters related to the estates of decedents. When someone passes away, their estate must be settled through a court-supervised estate administration process. While the Surrogate’s Court oversees the process, a personal representative appointed by the court is responsible for caring for the day-to-day activities of the administration process.
The first step in the process is for the person who wishes to be appointed personal representative to file a petition with the Surrogate’s Court in the County in which the decedent resided at the time of their death, along with the last will and testament of the decedent, if any. N.J. Ct. R. 4:80(c). For example, if the decedent was a resident of Woodbury, New Jersey, the petition would need to be filed with the Surrogate’s Court in Gloucester County. Before the personal representative has authority to act on behalf of the estate, the Surrogate’s Court must formally appoint them. If there is a will, it must be proved before the personal representative can commence the administration activities.
Probate and Estate Administration Process in New Jersey
Once the personal representative has been formally named and has received “letters” from the Surrogate’s Court as evidence of the appointment, they must quickly move forward with the tasks required to manage estate assets, pay estate debt, and distribute estate assets as follows:
- Inventory of assets. The personal representative is responsible for caring for and managing estate assets during the administration period. The personal representative must understand what is part of the decedent’s probate property as well as the value of that property. To that end, the personal representative may make an inventory of estate assets or the Surrogate’s Court may require the inventory. The inventory is a list of all assets as well as their value. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 3B:22-4
- Payment of debts. One of the primary purposes of estate administration is to make sure that the decedent’s debts are paid. In fact, before estate property can be dispersed, the personal representative must resolve debts. To receive payment, creditors must file their claims in writing within 9 months of the date of the decedent’s death. While the personal representative has a duty to pay debts left behind by the decedent, this can only be done if the estate has enough money. Before general claims are paid, first there are other bills that must be paid in the following order:
- Expenses for the funeral expenses for the decedent
- Expenses related to administration
- Money that the decedent owed to the Office of the Public Guardian for Elderly Adults
- Debts owed to the federal government or to the State of New Jersey
- Decedent’s medical expenses
- Judgments entered against the decedent
- All other claims
If there is not enough money in the estate, some debts will not get paid.
- Asset distribution. New Jersey law requires that the personal representative resolve claims and allocate assets to expenses before asset distribution. Once the estate is ready for distribution, the personal representative must follow the terms of the will and New Jersey law in determining how to distribute assets. For example, the decedent’s will may be very specific and list who gets specific property such as real estate, vehicles, or jewelry. Or, the will may direct that the entire estate is to be divided equally among multiple people. If the decedent did not leave a will, the law requires that the estate go to the decedent’s next of kin such as their spouse and children.
- Closing of the estate. Once the personal representative has distributed assets, they can take steps to close the estate. This involves filing an accounting with the Surrogate’s Court. The accounting must include the assets received by the personal representative and their date of death values, details about the disbursements from the estate, including expenses of administration, payments of claims, any estate or inheritance taxes, distributions to beneficiaries and heirs, and the personal representative’s commission. It also indicates assets that remain in the estate and their value for final distribution to the beneficiaries. The personal representative can then petition the court for full release as fiduciary of the estate.