Probate Court Consolidation Yields Savings and Strengthens Professionalism

By Paul J. Knierim
May 11, 2010
Fairfield County Bar Association Newsletter

A year ago, Connecticut’s probate courts faced an uncertain future. A growing budget deficit and a dwindling balance in the probate administration fund were bringing our financial problems to a head. While the topic of probate court reform had simmered at the state capitol for years, the 2009 legislative session began with several proposals under consideration to restructure the entire system. One bill would even have eliminated the probate courts altogether.

Our situation is now vastly improved. Last June, the General Assembly approved Public Act 09-114, based largely on a proposal jointly developed by the Probate Assembly and Probate Court Administration. This watershed legislation will make the system more cost effective while strengthening the professionalism of the courts. Our finances have already stabilized, owing largely to appropriations from the state’s general fund, and will continue to improve as we implement the new statute’s cost-cutting measures.

Most of the changes embodied in Public Act 09-114 take effect on January 5, 2011, the beginning of the next term for probate judges. With less than a year to go until the new system becomes operational, all of us – court employees, judges, and the staff at probate administration -- are working very hard to make sure that the transition is smooth. Uninterrupted and excellent service for court users remains our top priority.

The most noticeable difference in the system will be the consolidation of 117 probate districts into 54. Of those, 32 are newly configured districts, while 22 others remain unchanged. Judges have been working with town officials to determine the names, locations, and budgets for newly merged courts. Court consolidation will mean longer travel distances for some, but any inconvenience will hopefully be offset by the new rule that all courts be kept open full-time. Of course, probate judges will continue the longstanding tradition of conducting hearings off-site when parties have difficulty getting to a court.

Court consolidation will affect Fairfield County less than other counties simply because there are fewer small courts in the region than in other parts of the state. The Bridgeport, Danbury, Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Shelton, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, and Westport probate districts will not be changed. Only three consolidated districts include Fairfield County towns: the new Northern Fairfield County Probate District will serve Bethel, Newtown, Redding, and Ridgefield, and will be situated in Bethel. The Darien and New Canaan probate courts will merge to become the Darien-New Canaan Probate District. Discussions regarding the location of that court are ongoing. Brookfield, New Fairfield, and Sherman will join the Litchfield County towns of Bridgewater and New Milford to create the Housatonic Probate District, which will be located in the New Milford Town Hall.

In addition to redistricting, Public Act 09-114 makes several other important changes. Probate judges who are first elected this November are required to be attorneys. Incumbent non-attorney judges can continue to serve if re-elected.

The statute establishes the position of attorney probate referee, modeled on the Superior Court’s attorney trial referee program. To be eligible, an attorney must have been admitted for a minimum of five years. The Chief Justice will appoint attorneys to the position, and referees will hear cases that are referred by probate judges. Their proposed findings are submitted to the referring judge, who will review the report before rendering judgment. I encourage attorneys who are interested in this position to contact me or any probate judge after January 1, 2011 for consideration. I expect that probate practitioners will find this volunteer activity very rewarding.

Public Act 09-114 also restructures our finances. Beginning in 2011, the system’s financial operations will be centralized, thus eliminating the redundancy of separate bookkeeping and payroll systems at each court. For the first time in our long history, the probate courts, together with probate administration, will operate under one comprehensive budget.

The legislation also brings about changes in compensation and benefits for both judges and court staff. Judges will receive fixed salaries based upon the populations and workloads of their respective districts. Similarly, court staff will transition to a uniform compensation and benefits plan. I am very pleased that our implementation plan will maintain current staffing levels, retaining as much of our talented and experienced staff as possible. Lawyers are likely to see familiar faces, even if they are in new locations.

Public Act 09-114 is the product of a highly successful collaboration among probate judges, attorneys, the General Assembly, and the Governor. While the restructuring is strong medicine, it will bring much needed financial stability and uniformity to the system. It will also preserve and promote the essential characteristics that make the probate courts uniquely suited to handle the sensitive personal issues associated with probate jurisdiction. All of us in the probate system are committed to making sure that the courts remain accessible, approachable, and consumer oriented. We greatly appreciate the support of the bar during this challenging process.

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