Navigating the New Jersey Probate Court: Insights From the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC

Understand the complexities of the New Jersey probate court with the experienced attorneys at the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC. Learn how we can assist you through the probate process.

Understanding the Probate Process in New Jersey

Probate in New Jersey is a legal process that ensures that a deceased person’s assets are distributed to the right people as specified in their will.

Probate matters across the state are handled by the surrogate’s court in cooperation with  the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part in each county.

Each court handles different aspects of the probate process. If your loved one or family member died leaving a will in New Jersey, or you’ve been appointed as a will’s executor, the will may need to be probated in one of these courts before execution. In that case, it is important to understand the roles of both courts, so you know what to expect beforehand.

At the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC, we recognize the difficulties of going through the complex probate process after losing a loved one. We can help simplify the process for grieving individuals and families by guiding them through the legal complexities.

In this guide, we explain how both arms of the New Jersey probate court work to keep you informed before you get started. Please read on to learn more.

The Role of the Surrogate’s Court

There’s a surrogate’s court in each New Jersey County. Each surrogate’s court has the power to admit wills to probate and grant letters testamentary or letters of administration (with the will annexed). These letters essentially authorize the executor of a will to administer the will maker’s (testator’s) estate and distribute their assets as specified in the will.

However, the surrogate court’s jurisdiction in such matters is limited to uncontested cases, that is, cases where there’s no objection or dispute related to the will or its execution.

The Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part

Superior courts in New Jersey are established as courts of general jurisdiction by the New Jersey Constitution. They have the statutory authority to hear and resolve all contentious probate matters and certain uncontested matters concerning wills, trusts, and estates.

This court also oversees surrogate’s courts and can review their decisions if there is any dispute or disagreement in that regard.

When Is Probate Necessary?

Before initiating a probate action in either court, it is important to determine whether probate is required in that specific case.

In New Jersey, probate is unnecessary in certain circumstances, even if the deceased ( formally called the decedent) has left a will.

For example, probate is not required if the assets specified in the will are not solely in the testator’s name (that is, if someone else, such as a spouse, jointly owned the property with the deceased). But if the testator was the sole owner of the assets in the will, then the will must be admitted to probate.

Certain types of assets can also bypass probate, even if the testator was the sole owner. Such assets are categorized as non-probate assets and include;

  • Life insurance policies and retirement accounts with designated beneficiaries
  • Property that has been placed in a revocable living trust.

Anyone who wishes to avoid the complexities of the probate process on behalf of their heirs and loved ones can convert their assets into the above forms during their lifetime while planning their estate. That way, they can ensure a smooth transfer of their assets after their death.

However, each choice may have other legal implications. So, the estate planning process is best handled by an experienced estate planning attorney who can determine the most suitable estate planning approach depending on the individual’s circumstances.

The New Jersey Probate Court Process Summarized

The probate court process in New Jersey may be summarized as follows.

Beginning the Process 

The process typically begins when the executor named in the will files an application in the surrogate’s court of the county where the testator lived before their death. The executor would need to present the following:

  • The original will
  • A certified copy of the testator’s death certificate
  • A list of the testator’s heirs or surviving family members and their addresses
  • Funds (cash, check, or money order) that cover the probate fees.

Determining the Validity of the Will

The Surrogate (the head of the surrogate’s court) will first determine whether the will is valid under New Jersey law. If the will is valid, the Surrogate will prepare and issue certain forms to be signed by the executor.

If the will is invalid, then the state laws of intestate succession may be used to administer the estate and determine who gets what, which may not align with the testator’s original wishes. That’s why it is important for anyone who wishes to create a will to consult a lawyer who can ensure that all the legalities are covered and that the will would not be unenforceable when it matters.

Proving the Will

The next major step would be to prove the will’s authenticity. The process at this stage depends on whether or not the will is self-proving.

A self-proving will is one that meets certain legal standards that make it easy to verify its authenticity. Under New Jersey law, a self-proving will must be signed by the testator, two witnesses, and a notary public. Wills that meet this requirement can be admitted to probate without further evidence.

However, if a will is not self-proving, one of the witnesses who signed the will must appear before the Surrogate to verify the will. If both witnesses are dead, then the signatures of the testator and the witnesses must be proved by affidavits signed by people who can identify their signatures.

Once the will is proven, the Surrogate will admit it to probate and issue letters testamentary, which authorize the executor to administer the estate, pay off any debts and taxes in accordance with the law and then distribute the remaining property to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will.

Referrals to the Superior Court

A surrogate’s court cannot grant probate in cases where

  • A caveat is filed before the judgment
  • A copy of the will was presented instead of the original
  • There is any kind of dispute
  • The Surrogate certified the case to be one of doubt and difficulty
  • The will has not been properly executed
  • There is no witness to prove the will.

Such cases can only be resolved by the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part. 

Upon the application of any party, the superior court will determine whether the will in such cases can be admitted to probate after considering all the factors and reviewing the evidence.

How the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC Can Help

At the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC, we are keenly aware that dealing with the probate court process can be complex and emotionally taxing for those who have recently been bereaved. We can ensure that your rights are protected throughout the probate court process to secure your inheritance or address your concerns as a next of kin.

Our commitment to exceeding client expectations is reflected in our diligence and attention to detail in every case. No matter where you are in the probate process, you can trust us to guide you and help simplify the probate court proceedings so you can navigate the process confidently.

For those who wish to avoid probate in advance, we can offer insights and legal advice on structuring various types of assets, from bank accounts to stock portfolios and life insurance proceeds, to facilitate their seamless transfer to the rightful inheritors.

Get Help With Your Probate Case From the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC

The New Jersey probate court process can be complex to navigate because there’s more than one court involved. Each court has its scope of authority and different legal processes that could be difficult to understand without legal knowledge, especially for those dealing with a recent bereavement.

Our team at the Law Offices of Wenarsky and Goldstein, LLC stands ready to represent you in this difficult time and ensure that your interests are fully protected throughout the court proceedings. 

Contact us today if you have any questions about the New Jersey probate court system, wills, estates, trusts, or guardianships. Let us assess your case and take the next steps toward your probate or estate planning goals together.

Call the Law Office of Wenarsky & Goldstein

At the Law Offices of Wenarsky & Goldstein, LLC, our New York and New Jersey attorneys are experienced and knowledgeable in bankruptcy, estate planning and probate, guardianship, special needs planning, and real estate law. To learn more about how we can assist you with your legal needs, call us today at 973-453-2838.