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Is it Still Possible to Probate a Will?

Last week, I heard the statistic reported that the number of Covid-19 related deaths has now exceeded the number of people who died in the Vietnam War.  The Vietnam War, of course, spanned 11 years while the current pandemic has been ongoing for a few months at this point.

The compressed time frame has caused many issues including, for example, putting stress on our health care system.  It has also caused backlogs for funeral homes and in making burial arrangements.  Understandably, our office has received an increase in calls from families who have buried loved ones and are seeking our assistance with estate administration issues.  With the state still in lock down until at least the middle of this month, how have the court systems been affected?  Is it possible to probate a will in these uncertain and unusual times?

In New Jersey, probate of wills and estate administration in general are handled by the Office of the Surrogate, which is located in the county courthouse complex.  Each county has a surrogate who is the elected official charged with managing that process, however, there are variations from county to county in terms of some of the procedures.

The complete shut down of business statewide has caused many government offices including courts to close, however, legal matters are still being processed.   Before Covid-19 most Surrogates required the executor to present a will for probate in person, Essex County being a notable exception (it has always accepted applications by mail).  Now all Surrogate offices are closed to the public so that all applications are being handled by mail.

Still, there are differences from county to county.  In some counties the Surrogate’s office prepares the paperwork and sends it to the proposed executor or administrator to sign before a notary.  Other Surrogates only permit notaries from their office, which will require videotaping of notary signings in accordance with the new law signed by Governor Murphy last month temporarily permitting remote signings.                

What is clear, however, is that estate administration business is still being conducted, although it is taking a bit longer than usual.