HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Hunterdon County’s freeholder board was told recently about the continuing work of the county surrogate court and office handling probate and estate proceedings of the deceased, with the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on New Jerseyans.

As of April 27, the county health department had confirmed 23 deaths related to COVID-19 within Hunterdon, and 6,044 people statewide had died due to the illness as of Monday.

According to county surrogate Susan J. Hoffman, the estate and wills processed in the court have become actions and procedures for some of the families of COVID-19’s victims to get to remember their loved one and say goodbye through rounding out the family’s legal affairs.

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“The families that we have helped have been grateful that staff can help them and that we’re open,” she said. “Some of our county departments report the statistics on cases (deaths and COVID-19), but our surrogate’s office puts a face and family to each victim. I probated the first COVID-19 victim that was a county resident last week, she was 73 years old. Our second victim’s materials appeared before the court today (April 21) and she was 95. Many families feel cheated because they may not have gotten to say goodbye in person due to the pandemic, or many have not held a proper funeral (with the social distancing in place). In a way the probate process is a part of their grieving.”

Increasingly, frequent customers of the county surrogate’s office are funeral directors who are handling such business matters for clients and families.

“Many funeral directors have thanked us for staying open,” she said. “Without the access to the deceased persons’ bank accounts, many of the funeral directors would not be paid and they would certainly need to be funded as the funeral homes need to stay open at this time.”

Remote notarizations, relaxing of court rules and working with the medical examiner are procedures now being streamlined by the surrogate’s office. During the week of April 20 to 24, Hoffman noted an uptick in the phone calls, emails and documents dropped off to her office, as she noted the impacts of the pandemic are being felt locally with area families tragically losing members.

“Probating wills, administration and guardianship acceptances are being done remotely, while original documents are mailed or deposited in the dropbox in our Justice Center’s lobby,” she said. “Documents are prepared and returned to the persons supplying. After they are notarized and returned to this court, certificates or letters are issued. Title searchers are either calling or emailing us their requests and we return by email or they can pick up copies.”

Contested probate matters, with the exception of trials, are also being conducted remotely. She noted that attorneys for each party call in and the judge connects speakers through CourtSmart, a digital recording system for the proceedings Hunterdon surrogate’s court is working through.

“The coordination for this takes hours,” she said. “For April 22, I have 16 attorneys and one pro se litigant on six different cases to be heard. We say ‘it takes a village’ to make these conferences happen and get everything in place.”  

Hoffman’s office stayed open from the beginning of closures six weeks ago, with staff on-site at 65 Park Avenue in Flemington on weekdays between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Two employees rotate coming in, and one surrogate court staffer is out indefinitely.

Hoffman and her deputy surrogate, Jessica Wallace, are in the office most days.

On April 17 the Hunterdon Surrogate Court held its first two remotely-serviced adoptions of children through the Department of Child Protection and Permanency.

“I am sure this proceeding was not what the adoptive parents had anticipated, but the adoptions were finalized, the names of the children were changed and that remains the goal,” Hoffman said. “At the end of the second adoption session, one new parent asked if they can return to the Justice Center in the future once it reopens to the public for a picture with the judge, and we said certainly they could.”

Freeholder John Lanza is an attorney with his family’s Flemington firm Lanza & Lanza, LLP, which manages estate litigation, family law and related cases. He often practices in the surrogate courts of many New Jersey counties, including in his home area.

“The Hunterdon County Surrogate’s Office is the envy of the state,” he said. “It is well-run, good people are working there, and they take their jobs seriously and handle these responsibilities in a very dignified manner with people they deal with. Most of the time, someone will walk into the surrogate’s office for the first time because they have lost somebody that they cared deeply for. Every time I have sent a client to our surrogate’s office, they give me feedback about how well they were treated and the good people working there. The office is a testament to the work of county surrogate Hoffman and the caliber of people she hires.”