Probate Courts are a Good Value
By Paul J. Knierim
Connecticut Law Tribune
There can be no dispute that the increase in probate fees on decedents’ estates enacted as part of the state budget this year is bad public policy. But to suggest that the solution to that problem is to abolish the Probate Courts, as the editorial board of this paper recently did, overlooks a far more appropriate remedy: the state should provide needed general fund support for the Probate Courts and reverse the fee increase.
Until this year, the finances of the Probate Court system were rock solid. In fact, the Probate Courts returned surpluses totaling $16.5 million to the general fund in the past four years. We ended fiscal year 2014-15 with $7.1 million in our operating fund. Hardly the kind of results that you’d expect from an organization that had “limped along financially,” as the editorial board put it.
Our strong fiscal track record is the result of good policies that the state put in place in 2011. That’s when we consolidated 117 courts into 54, restructured the finances of the system and adopted numerous cost-cutting measures. These changes continue to save the state $4 million every year. Another key part of restructuring in 2011 was a commitment on the state’s part to provide general fund support for the Probate Courts on an ongoing basis.
To put things in perspective, the total cost of operating the Probate Courts in fiscal year 2014-15 was $41 million. Of that, $10 million -- just under 25% -- came from the general fund; probate fees, before this year’s increases, generated $31 million. By comparison, 90% of the cost of operating all other courts in the state was borne by the general fund.
But the state reversed course this year. The Governor and General Assembly decided that the Probate Courts should be self-sufficient and reduced our general fund appropriation to zero. Despite our opposition, the budget act raised fees on decedents’ estates drastically as a means of replacing the appropriation.
There is no valid argument that the Probate Courts should be self-sufficient. While it is reasonable to expect fees on decedents’ estates to cover the expenses associated with that area of our jurisdiction, fees on matters such as custody and guardianship of children, conservatorships, psychiatric commitments and guardianships of adults with intellectual disability cannot possibly cover the cost of the resources that those cases demand. In fact, Probate Courts collected no fees in over 6,000 matters last year because the parties involved were indigent. On the other side of the ledger, the Probate Courts spent $2.7 million to pay for statutorily mandated counsel to represent indigent parties and another $4.4 million to pay for conservators for indigent conserved persons. The Probate Courts are an integral part of the state’s safety net for children, the elderly, and individuals with mental illness and intellectual disability, and it is not fair to impose the expense of those social service functions on decedents’ estates under the guise of a court user fee.
There is likewise no valid argument that our present financial situation – a problem of the state’s own making – justifies elimination of the Probate Courts. The Probate Court system is lean. It continually seeks to improve efficiency and requires only modest state funding to perform the many responsibilities assigned to our courts. The Probate Courts excel in customer service. Our regional structure provides convenient access for court users in an unintimidating atmosphere. The informality of Probate Court proceedings is particularly well-suited to the sensitive family cases that we handle and facilitates faster and less costly resolution of disputes.
There are, on the flip side, enormous costs associated with shifting the work of the Probate Courts to the Superior Court. Consider alone the impact on facilities. The Probate Courts are now housed in municipal facilities at no cost to the state. The additional judges and 350 court staff needed to handle the 95,000 matters that make up our annual docket cannot be accommodated in existing Superior Court facilities. The expense of acquiring space for that purpose will be considerable and ongoing.
The real question is not whether we should have Probate Courts. It is, instead, how the state should pay for the necessary services that the Probate Courts so capably provide. The work of the Probate Courts, like all other courts of the state, is a core government function that should be funded through the state budget.
We stand ready to work with all three branches of government in our continuing efforts to provide quality service to the people of our state in the most cost-effective manner possible.