Overhaul of probate to slash court sites

Monday, June 15, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

One of the last vestiges of Connecticut’s Colonial government — the Probate Court system — is due for a major overhaul in the coming months and years.

Last week, Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed legislation reforming the probate courts, the family courts that handle estates, trusts, conservatorships, child custody and name changes, among other matters. The most prominent feature of the act, which was introduced as House Bill 6385, is a provision to reduce the number of courts from 117 to between 44 and 50.

Many communities have their own probate courts, often located in town hall.

The legislation creates a commission charged with developing a plan to consolidate the Probate Court districts. The statewide assembly of Probate Court judges held a meeting recently to begin making recommendations to the commission for the redistricting process, and it is still unclear where the new consolidated districts will be located.

But with more than half of the courts set to merge, some probate judges are worried that their constituents will lose the local service they have known.

Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim said that the legislation is a long-term solution for a fiscal crisis the probate system has been facing for years. The courts, which have been operating in a deficit since 2005, would have run out of money by December, he said.

The state Probate Court system operates on a budget of about $40 million a year, Knierim said, 92 percent of which comes from fees. Since 2005, the courts have been running on surplus funds from previous years, but that source is projected to dry up in a few months.

Officials estimate that consolidating the courts will save at least $3.5 million a year, he said. The system would most likely still have to depend on state support, but at a lower level.

“Our caseload has been changing over the years, and in the past, probate fee revenue, which comes mostly from the fees on decedents’ estates, was adequate for the operation because most of our work was in that area,” Knierim said. “Over the years, though, the caseload of the courts has been increasingly in the area of social service cases, such as mental health issues and children’s matters. There is not a significant revenue stream from those cases, but they are expensive.”

Probate judges handle a variety of cases, from the traditional trusts and estates to appointing guardians for children or the developmentally disabled, terminating parental rights and granting adoptions. Many people appear in Probate Court without legal representation.

With the redistricting, some local officials are concerned that residents used to handling probate issues in their neighborhoods might have to travel out of town to the consolidated courts. At a North Branford Town Council meeting last week, council member Joseph Faughnan, a lawyer, raised the possibility that the 15,000-resident town could lose its Probate Court.

With the consolidation, each court district must contain a minimum of 40,000 people.

“The impact on North Branford, I don’t want to say it’s traumatic, but being a smaller town in the region I do think we would suffer if we’re not alert to the process,” Faughnan said.

Frank Forgione, probate judge for North Branford, said he has spoken with members of the Town Council about their concerns. Even if the court is located in another town, Forgione said he hoped that the probate judge for the district would continue to hold some hearings in North Branford.

“Frankly, I think that 50 (probate districts) is too few, however that’s what the legislation calls for, so we are bound by what the legislation calls for,” he said. “I’m always concerned that as something gets larger, the hands-on approach, the local service, the local flavor, is diminished. However, I would like to believe that whether it is myself or someone else that’s serving as the probate judge in a combined district, that we’ll continue to provide the service that we’ve striven to provide.”

East Haven Probate Judge Michael Albis agreed, saying he “would have liked to see more than 50 approved.” But he said he supported other reforms in the bill, such as the centralization of court finances.

“I personally feel that the community-based nature of the courts is one of its strongest aspects and I am concerned that going down from 117 courts to 50, it’s quite a challenge for the judges to come up with a redistricting plan that will still be as user-based and community-friendly as what we have now,” he said.

Albis said that the probate assembly is looking at which towns could combine easily with enough existing court space for the larger districts.

The assembly will have the first opportunity to present a redistricting plan to the commission.

Although it is still unclear where the new consolidated courts will be located, State Rep. Bob Godfrey (D-Danbury), who introduced the legislation, said it is likely that many will remain in local town halls. He added that he does not think there will be a need for construction or rental of additional space.

New plan would start in 2011

Godfrey said the probate redistricting commission is scheduled to present its recommendations to the legislature by September. Prior to that, he said, there will be a public hearing process for community input. The new districts would go into effect in 2011.

The current economic recession and budget crisis at the state level created the impetus for reforming the probate system, Godfrey said.

“The system pretty well was working, it was just going to run out of money and it is antique. These are kind of leftover districts from before the American Revolution,” he said. “We’re dragging the state into the 21st century.”

Guilford Probate Judge Joel Helander said he did not think there would be any benefits to local residents from the system reforms.

“I believe that it had far less to do with cost savings than it did with centralizing power and authority,” Helander said. “I think that time will only tell, but I don’t really believe that there’s going to be any substantial cost savings to the state.”

He described the Guilford Probate Court as a “people’s court,” where 50 percent of the users do not have attorneys.

“The fear of the consolidation had always been of making the courts, turning them into mega-districts that would not be user-friendly and would be relatively inaccessible like the superior courts,” he said. “Now that the bill has gone through, we’re working with it.”

In addition to the redistricting plan, the legislation includes several other reforms of the probate system as a whole. It requires probate judges to work 20 hours a week, and probate court offices to be open 40 hours a week. It sets standard compensation for judges as a percentage of what a Superior Court judge earns, based on the size of the probate court district. Judges must now be members of the Connecticut Bar Association, although the provision does not apply to judges currently in office.

The new act also states that any annual surplus funds in the Probate Court Administration Fund will be transferred to the state General Fund.

Knierim, the probate court administrator, said he believed the act would solve the system’s financial problems, while reducing its dependence on the state in the future.

Another move could be to raise the $12,500 cap on fees from an estate, which has not been increased since 1998.

The current reform is a “long-term solution for the system,” Knierim said, that is “not at all a Band-Aid.”

“Not only is it a fix for the financial issues, but it maintains a system of probate courts that is community-based and people-oriented,” he said. “We wanted to preserve what’s best about the system while at the same time making it more efficient.”

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