Newly elected last November and seated in January, Monroe County Surrogate Court Judge Christopher Ciaccio appointed the first woman to serve as Monroe County public administrator.
Cressida Dixon, a partner and trust and estate attorney in Bond, Schoeneck & King’s Rochester office, was named to that post. Matthew Taylor, a trust and estate lawyer in the firm’s Rochester office, is her deputy.
A public administrator’s main job is to oversee the affairs of county residents who die without having made a will and have no relatives or heirs able or willing to take on the job. That can mean selling off property or seeing underwater real estate through a foreclosure. Responsibilities of the post also include tracking down relatives of people who die alone who might be willing to take on executor duties or at minimum see to their relative’s remains.
Not every New York county has a public administrator; only the larger ones do. Monroe, along with Erie, Onondaga, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties and five boroughs of New York City, is one among 11 of the state’s 62 counties that have the position.
The public administrator position is not generally a high-profile job. Still, the post carries heavy responsibilities and, though it often does not, can involve large sums of money.
Most people who die without naming heirs have few assets, and many have virtually none, says Dixon, whose work intrusts and estates goes back some two decades. Dixon, who assumed her new duties Jan. 1, says that coming as they did when the county’s death toll rose with the pandemic’s spike, her first few months on the job have been hectic.
In addition to herself, Taylor and a paralegal assisting them, Dixon says, Bond, Schoeneck plans to add two full-time employees dedicated to public administrator work, a paralegal and an investigator.
Part of the public administrator’s compensation, which goes to the firm and not directly to Dixon or Taylor, comes as a percentage of the value of estates administered. Most estates overseen by the office are small, falling in the four to five figure range or even less. Still, the position has proved lucrative for some.
New York City’s surrogate courts have for decades drawn criticism as conduits for political patronage and graft.
In the 1930s New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican, complaining that they greased the wheels of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine, called for the reform of surrogate courts. Not much had changed some three decades later in 1966, when Robert F. Kennedy, a Democrat, in a campaign speech called the city’s surrogate courts “a political tollbooth exacting tribute from widows and orphans.”
In 2005, a Brooklyn Surrogate Court judge was ousted for directing $9 million in fees charged to deceased parties’ estates to a lawyer who was a personal friend. Big Apple surrogate courts were still drawing heat in 2012.
In Monroe County, Dixon’s predecessor, Frank Iacovangelo, a Republican who held the post for 20 years under appointments from two previous surrogate court judges, drew fire when former Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks approved an annual stipend of $100,000 to be paid to the public administrator, a more than double increase. The office’s compensation subsequently was changed to a percentage basis. The judges who appointed Iacovangelo were Republicans.
Prior to that switch in 2015, fees extracted from estates overseen by the Monroe County public administrator were turned over to the county. The Monroe County Surrogate Court judge at the time, John Owens, reversed the compensation policy, sending fees to Gallo & Iacovangelo instead.
In 2012, Iacovangelo was sued by the family of Sally Green, a homeless woman whom he sent to be buried in a pauper’s grave after failing to turn up relatives. Survivors living in this area, including a son, claimed that had Iacovangelo checked with a local homeless shelter where Green sometimes stayed, he could have easily learned that she had family here.
Sally Green’s body was disinterred and reburied in Mt. Hope Cemetery. But while it conceded that that the Greens had a point in seeing Iacovangelo as negligent, a Fourth Department Appellate Division panel last year upheld a lower court ruling dismissing the family’s complaint.
“We conclude that the county defendants established, as a matter of law, that the (public administrator) is entitled to governmental function immunity inasmuch as he was engaged in a governmental function when he was attempting to locate decedent’s next of kin,” the appellate panel’s June 2020 decision states.
Ciaccio has so far kept the public administrator’s percentage compensation arrangement in place. Several other counties have similar compensation arrangements, he says, but the law is not clear on whether it is allowed for Monroe County, and he is hoping to see clarification on that point by the State Legislature.
When Ciaccio, who running as a Democrat defeated GOP candidate Elena Cariola, a partner in Gallo & Iacovangelo and Frank Iacovangelo’s daughter, he invited three local firms—Underberg & Kessler LLP, Harris Beach PLLC and Bond, Schoeneck—to apply for the public administrator post.
Ciaccio says he picked those three firms because he considers their trust and estate departments to be strong. He had to rule out Underberg & Kessler because the firm’s managing partner is related to a judge in the state court system, which would have been considered an ethical breach. Though Harris Beach was a close second, Ciaccio says, Dixon’s commitment to public service clinched Bond, Schoeneck as his choice.
“I wanted the job because it would let me to do public service,” Dixon says. “I’ve been doing (trust and estate work) for 24 years and I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have more time to do volunteer work.”
In her first few months on the public administrator job, most of the work has involved small estates or responding to requests from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s office to track down relatives of individuals who died alone.
Still, says Dixon, she is thrilled with the job. It’s a lot of work “but it’s given me a much better understanding of the courts.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.