How not to save probate system (CT)

For the Charles Dickens lovers among us, probate court always has meant only one thing: “Bleak House.” Dickens’ door-stopping tome, about the interminable case of an enormous estate — and the exploits of those who want a piece of it — was the 19th-century writer’s indictment of an English court system that was ponderous and ineffective. The fictitious case, “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce,” took place in a probate court (then called “chancery courts”), and the tediously drawn-out proceedings are what most of us think of when we think of a probate court. And it’s true. To this day, probate courts are where estates get processed. But today, they do much more.

That’s why Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to cut the Connecticut Probate Court’s funding by $32 million — about one-third of its budget — came to the legislature, caused many court observers to go berserk. That amount is roughly equivalent to the salaries of the more than 300 employees of the probate court system.

One wonders why this part of the budget drafted by the state Office of Policy and Management, was not referred to in the governor’s Feb. 18 budget speech. Why was it hidden from legislators and the public? Interred, deep in the budget’s appendix, the excision read: “eliminate probate court subsidy.”

The probate courts are not what they used to be.

Historically, the probate system handled the administration of estates, wills and distribution of assets. That’s how most of us think of probate. I’ve had three experiences with probate — all concerning estates, and all tedious, protracted and expensive.

During the mid-17th century, only two courts handled probate matters: Particular Courts, the original trial courts; or the General Court, which performed nearly all government functions at that time. Though there have been many changes within the law since then, the most recent change is a reduction in the number of probate courts from 117 to 54, in 2011. The purpose of consolidating the probate courts four years ago was to save the state $4 million a year. But each year, the probate courts have taken on more and more social services.

Probate is the court people turn to when a child’s parents are so unfit, their rights are taken away. It is where grandparents often turn when they want to become guardians of grandchildren who have been through often horrifying family situations. It’s also probate that handles cases in which a person suffering from dementia needs to have a conservator or guardians appointed to take care of his or her financial dealings. That’s true for the mentally and physically disabled, as well. Most who adopt children in Connecticut also go through probate.

Probate is a more informal court, said Paul J. Knierim, the state’s probate court administrator. “It’s a more comfortable setting and a more informal setting,” he said. “Where probate court matters most often is (a case) when a grandparent is not only offering the court a problem, but offering it a solution.”

Often, those who come before the probate court are not wealthy. Many are too indigent to pay the initial $150 petitioning fee. Knierim estimated the fee is waived in 75 percent of the cases. If the legislature passes Malloy’s cut, pressure to increase those fees will be immense. By most accounts, they will jump to $800. “Impossible,” Knierim said. “A large part of our budget goes to providing the resources to process those cases when the parties involved aren’t able to help themselves.”

This matter will be in the hands of legislators for at least two more months. The Appropriations Committee will make recommendations for changes soon. Then, top leaders will craft a final compromise with the governor. This probably will not happen until late May or early June. My one hope is that our representatives will fight for the preservation of this necessary, much-needed constitutional court system.

“Whether it is children, the deceased, the elderly, the mentally ill, or the disabled, the Connecticut Probate Courts are always there to help and protect those who cannot protect themselves,” said Pat Saviano, president of the Connecticut Association of Probate Courts.

I could not agree more. I have been my brother’s conservator for 37 years, and I am grateful this system is in place as a vehicle in which I am able to help him.

Charles Dickens satirized the Probate Court System in England to make the point that the courts were in desperate need of reform. I am aware many more reforms still are needed in the Connecticut probate system. But chopping off this arm of our judicial system is not the way to save its soul.


How not to save probate system
Mary Werblin
April 26, 2015
Republican American