At a bit more than $100,000 a year, it’s the highest paying elected position on the ballot, yet no one seems to know what, exactly, the Monmouth County Surrogate does.
Nearing the end of her first five-year term in the position and facing challenger Michael Steinhorn in the Nov. 8 election, incumbent Rosemarie Peters provided an idea of what a day in the life of a surrogate is like.
“Aside from the fact that it is an elected position, it’s really not a political one in nature at all,” she said. “The people in this office provide a real service to people in need: those trying to adopt a child, family members dealing with wills, guardians of minors or incapacitated people. These are all very sensitive issues, so, in addition to all the legal aspects and monitoring, the job requires an extra amount of tender loving care.”
The surrogate’s office deals with roughly 3,300 estates a year, involving will validity, trustees and executors, determining estate administrators for those who die without wills, clearing up matters concerning signatures on wills and probate, guardianship, adoptions, trust fund administration and holdings. “Right now we have more than $27 million in trust for 700 accounts,” Peters said.
The surrogate also goes into probate court twice a month to review hearings involving contested issues, “or, to put it in more colloquial terms, family feuds,” she added.
With the end of her term on the horizon, Peters says she feels she’s accomplished a lot, but was just getting warmed up and there’s much more that she feels she has the “will” and way to do.
Her challenger, Michael Steinhorn, however, thinks he’s a better fit for a job that he believes needs new blood and perspective.
The following are biographical synopses of each candidate including the views of each, goals and their individual assessments of the position:
Michael Steinhorn, 63, 9 Clover Lane, Rumson
• Professional background: A retired CPA from KPMG, based in Roseland, an international accounting firm • Presently a realtor with Dian Turton Realtors, Rumson
• Political affiliation and background: Democrat • Ran for Rumson Borough Council in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and lost all three bids for election.
• Volunteer work: A local historian, preservationist who is a member of Preserve Rumson • A member of the Monmouth County Genealogical Society • President of a local genealogical and burial society • Former scout leader and class parent
A 33-year Rumson resident, Michael Steinhorn graduated from Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn, NY, with Juris doctor degree. He believes his educational background combined with volunteer work in genealogy/history and his career CPA gives him a unique qualification advantage for the surrogate position.
“I’m absolutely ideal for this,” he said. “The accounting background is important for a surrogate to have. I believe there should be a regular audit, not just review, of records.”
Being able to care for people, protect their rights and make certain that descendents get their due through wills is something he said he thinks he can do well, given his fiscal skills and fascination with and respect for history and genealogy.
“Making sure desires are effectuated is something I know I am equipped to do,” he said. “I also have plans for making the current system more efficient and financially accountable. I will also make sure guardians do the right job when taking care of people’s finances.”
Steinhorn’s plans, should he be elected to the position: to upgrade technology in the office; double satellite offices, cross-train staff to “better serve the public and staff satellite offices; increase employee training; and “streamline the office’s dealing with attorneys who handle many of the cases on behalf of their clients.”
Why is Steinhorn running? “I didn’t know this position was up opening up,” he said. “The party (Democratic) said I was perfect and I agreed.”
Rosemarie D. Peters, 69, Carnegie Court, Middletown
• Professional background: Former public relations director for McCall Publishing Co., New York, NY • A cable television/video producer • An advertising copywriter, editor
• Political affiliation and background: Republican • Serves on Judiciary-Surrogate Liaison Committee, by appointment of the NJ Supreme Court • Vice President of Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey, Surrogate Section chief • Served six terms, or 18 years, on the Middletown Township Committee, three of those years as deputy mayor and four as mayor • Former member of Middletown’s Planning and Zoning boards • Former member of Legislative Review Committee, NJ League of Municipalities • Former president of Middletown Township League of Women Voters
• Volunteer work: • Former chair of Middletown Open Space Preservation Committee • Trustee, past president and founder of Middletown Township Cultural and Arts Council, a non-profit • Former member of Monmouth County Mental Health Association • Former member of Monmouth County Environmental Council
A longtime Middletown resident, Rosemarie Peters graduated from the Rutgers School of Law-Newark while serving the first few years of what ended up being her 18-year tenure on the township’s governing body. She feels that her extensive public service background coupled with the law degree serve as the ideal pairing of experience to continue for another five years in the county surrogate position.
“There’s a great deal of public service involved in the job; and everything we do is legal I nature and tied to the court system,” she said. “My background is perfectly suited for it, not to mention the fact that it has been a wonderful challenge that I have really enjoyed. There is a lot of human interest in this line of work. I just find it fascinating and I really feel that I have effectuated a lot of positive change.”
Peters feels that it is essential to the job to forge effective communication with the public concerning issues with which the surrogate deals.
To that end, she said she has addressed more than 50 groups this year to help people better understand “what’s what with wills and how to get estates in order.”
Helping people in this respect and daily on the job with will matters as well as guardianships and other related matters, she said, gives her and the people she helps “real peace of mind. It’s very rewarding.”
In addition to the personal touch side of the job, Peters said that she has “a number of new projects underway.”
Since she has been surrogate, a new computer system has been installed with a singular database, that, Peters said, considering the mass amount of documentation held in and passing through the office, was a “huge, comprehensive project” that will streamline operations significantly.
In addition to continuing to speak to groups for informational purposes, Peters also intends, if re-elected, to institute a new system for more closely monitoring and following up on guardianship situations involving both the people and their property.
“Sometimes people don’t quite fully understand what a daunting task it can be to be a guardian and the financial and personal responsibility that comes with that,” she said. “A guardian of property, for instance, is required to file an inventory with the court. In the past that inventory was not tracked as well. I’d like to implement a system for more regular tracking and add more follow-up on these cases involving both property and care of incapacitated people to prevent financial abuse.”
Why is she running again? “I have so much more to do and enjoy it immensely,” Peters said. “I’m learning something new every day, but I’ve really only just begun to accomplish all I’d like to accomplish. I am very committed to the office and its work.”