by C. Jean Stewart
Since I last posted an article on this blog, I was elected president of the National College of Probate Judges at its fall conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The College is the only national organization focusing exclusively on probate matters. Its mission, to support, educate and provide resources to state and local judges who handle probate matters contributes to the efficient administration of justice in the probate courts in the United States. Because I feel strongly about the role probate judges have historically played and continue to play in the fabric of the American court system, I embark on this role with both enthusiasm and resolve.
While the term “probate” historically referred only to the limited process of proving a testamentary document to be the decedent’s last will, probate has come to refer to a group of case types that include not only the administration of decedent’s estates, but also trust administration (a growing area), appointment of guardians and conservators (in some states the terms used are: guardian of the person and guardian of the property), disposition of last remains, declarations of death, civil mental health commitments and treatment of the mentally ill or addicted, and in some jurisdictions, the adoption of children.
Some or all of the probate judges in 15 states are elected or selected to serve only in probate jurisdiction; in another 33 states judges of general jurisdiction have jurisdiction over probate cases, along with their civil and criminal dockets. In 3 states, such as Colorado, there is a hybrid system where one or more localities have specialized judges while other areas rely on general jurisdiction judges for probate decisions.
Probate judges hear complex trials (including jury trials) arising from fiercely-contested cases, many of which are sensationalized and reported in the local or national press, such as the claim brought by Ryan O’Neal in the Farrah Fawcett estate litigation that was decided yesterday by a California jury. Probate judges also hear many uncontested proceedings focused on the deteriorating physical and mental condition of injured, ill, and incapacitated citizens who rely on the courts to protect their rights while insuring that they receive appropriate care and support under the supervision of the probate court.
The National College of Probate Judges plays an important role in assisting probate judges address these challenging and often emotionally-charged cases with educational seminars, publication of resources and materials (such as the National Probate Court Standards) and providing opportunities for collegial interactions with colleagues. I look forward to working with judges around the United States during this coming year to assist with their important mission.