Theresa Whelan always knew she wanted to be in public service. As a young attorney fresh out of Albany Law School, she began her legal career in 1988 as a Suffolk County Assistant County Attorney. She entered the court system in 1990 as a senior law clerk to Supreme Court Judge Eli Wagner, in Nassau County. She went on to work as a principal law clerk in Suffolk County for Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Werner and, later, Supreme Court Judge William B. Rebolini. During her 17 years in the Supreme Court, she worked in nearly every part, including civil litigation, guardianship, tax certiorari and condemnation cases as well as matrimonial matters.
Theresa Whelan became Suffolk County’s Surrogate in 2019, presiding over proceedings involving wills, trusts and estates as well as guardianship matters. She retired in the summer of 2022, marking 32 years with the New York State court system.
Known for her commitment to improving court practices to better serve the needs of the public, Theresa Whelan mobilized several initiatives that helped families and children and that expanded access to justice for all court users. She was a catalyst of the FOCUS (Family Overcoming Crisis through Unified Services) initiative, a program that expedites access to services that address the trauma and developmental needs of children and parents in the court system.
She also served as lead judge of the Suffolk County Child Welfare Court Improvement Project, part of a statewide initiative to address court practices in cases where the court has removed children from their parents’ care. In 2016, Chief Administrative Judge Larry Marks appointed her to the Family Court Advisory and Rules Committee. In 2018, former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore appointed her to the New York State Commission on Parental Representation, which is tasked with holding public hearings and reporting on the status and quality of lawyers representing parents in child welfare cases. Since 2016, Theresa Whelan had been the chair of Suffolk County’s Attorneys for Children Advisory Committee, which is responsible for considering the qualifications of new applicants to the Attorneys for Children panel as well as reviewing the recertification applications for existing lawyers.
Prior to beginning her legal career, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Master of Science degree in Policy Analysis and Public Management from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
She continued her dedication to the public good even after her illness. Her family, friends and former colleagues remember her as someone who braved challenges with grace and compassion.