By David Brand
What do you do with someone’s property if they die without a will? It’s one of the most delicate questions in law, one that many people put off answering until it’s too late.
But for nearly eight years, Judge Peter Kelly has been tasked with untangling estates of deceased Queens residents as Surrogate Court judge. Kelly was elected to a 14-year term in 2010.
In a borough with 2.4 million people, that means a lot of death and estate proceedings, but Kelly is up to the challenge. And he has a deep connection to the county he served.
“Trusts and estates law has a reputation as a dry, uninteresting practice, but in reality it’s anything but that,” Kelly said. “To be a good practitioner, you need to know trust and estates law, property law, contract law, business law, matrimonial law. It covers a broad array and you’re not button-holed into one type of law.”
Kelly grew up in Astoria and attended St. Joseph’s in Long Island City and Monsignor McClancy High School in Elmhurst. His first job was as a concessionaire in Shea Stadium and he remembers selling peanuts as fans pelted Pete Rose during the 1973 National League Championship Series.
After graduating from Iona College, he returned home and earned his law degree from St. John’s University Law School. He served as principal law clerk and court referee for former Surrogate Court Judge Robert Nahman, whom he ultimately succeeded.
Kelly has served as Queens Civil Court Judge and Supreme Court, Civil Term Justice. Before his election in 2010 as Judge of the Surrogate Court, Kelly served as Acting Surrogate Court Judge for several years.
He said he was motivated to pursue law after spending time around members of the Democratic Club with his mother, a district leader elected when Kelly was in grammar school.
Kelly was the first person in his family to attend college.
“My parents really sat on us in grammar school and high school and they pushed us to excel,” Kelly said. “I decided to be an attorney. It seems like I made the right choice.”
As Judge of Queens Surrogate Court, Kelly presides over three types of estate proceedings: small estate proceedings for instances when a person dies with less than $30,000 worth of personal property; probate proceedings, when a person dies with a will; and administration proceedings, when a person dies without a will.
“If you come to my courtroom on Thursday, you will see every ethnicity imaginable,” he said. “People come into court with some trepidation and you have to take steps to put them at ease, and that means more patience.”
Kelly assigned a dedicated court attorney to assist self-represented clients. He said he would also like to work with local law schools to further assist individuals who do not have an attorney. Kelly said he relies on his clerk James Becker.
In recent years, Surrogate Court has faced questions about the number of guardianship appointments given to lawyers of color. Kelly said the court has taken steps to ensure more attorneys from minority communities become involved in the guardianship process.
“I have made it my job to reach out to the Latino Lawyers [Association], Macon B. Allen [Black Bar] Association, the Korean Lawyers,” he said. “As long as they’re on the list, I’ve given everyone a shot.”
He also said he works to ensure his staff is diverse.
“I think that’s important for people coming to court,” Kelly said. “You have to treat everyone cordially and with respect. Not everyone is going to win but everyone has to be treated fairly.”
His role enables him to interact with an array of residents, often during some of their most challenging moments — the aftermath of a loved one’s death .
But it’s not all grim calculations about the estates of the deceased. Kelly also oversees adoptions and guardianship proceedings for people with developmental disabilities.
“It’s some of the most heartwarming work I’ve ever done in my life,” Kelly said.