Bill would restore duties to registrars at probate courts
By MICHAEL MORTENSEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — For many people, probate courts are an institution shrouded in mystique. While probate courts are involved in one of life's two classic certainties — death — laypeople can find the process hard to understand and difficult to navigate.
Some state lawmakers agree and have gotten behind a bill that would restore some responsibilities held until recently by county registers — or registrars — of probate.
As they see it, the current system, which changed under a 2011 law, is not as easy to use as it once was, particularly for older people who are trying to handle the now-centralized and computerized probate process on their own.
For some legislators, as well as Belknap County Register of Probate Alan Glassman, the new system has been a mixed blessing, with the biggest downside being that the system is not as user-friendly as it used to be.
"I know of a number of instances," Glassman said, "where people go into the (probate) court to be handed paperwork and be told (by a clerk), 'When you bring it back we'll begin the process.' In the past, the registers would go over the paperwork with people." Now Glassman and others, including state Sen. James Gray, say that too often now those with questions are being told to hire a lawyer.
As Glassman sees it, the probate courts need to do a better job at customer service, and he thinks that the elected registers are in the best position to fill that need.
"We want to improve the process and provide the service we use to provide," he explained.
With the exception of people who have set up revocable living trusts, all estates must go through the probate process, whether there is a will or not.
Last week the state House of Representatives took an initial step to pass a bill — House Bill 476 — that would among other things require that registers of probate hold regular office hours and that they coordinate with the the clerk of local circuit courts the scheduling of probate cases. The bill passed its initial floor vote by tally of 198-146. The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee, which is responsible for determining how a bill's fiscal impact will be funded.
In 2011 the state created the circuit court system and gave it the responsibility over matters that had been handled separately by the district courts, which deal with misdemeanor offenses and small claims cases; family courts, which deal with matters such as juvenile delinquency, divorces and child support; and probate courts, which deal with wills and trusts, adoptions, and guardianships.
That law basically eliminated the position of register of probate in everything but name. Whereas previously the registers had functioned as head clerks of the probate courts and so were intimately involved in the day-to-day workings of the court, under the new law their responsibilities were limited to ensuring the proper filing of historically significant probate records. In return for carrying out those duties, the registers are now paid $100 a year. They don't even have access to the court's computerized record system.
The consolidation of district, family and probate courts was promoted by the court system as a way of saving money by streamlining procedures and making more efficient use of personnel. But state Rep. Claire Rouillard, the vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key supporter of House Bill 476, said the bill creating the circuit courts was passed on a consent calendar, which means it passed without the debate.
While the registers of probate no longer had a role to speak of in the new set-up, the post remained because the position is written into the state Constitution and eliminating it would require a passing a constitutional amendment, according to Paul Mirski, the register of probate in Grafton County. Last year, the Senate considered such a constitutional amendment, but that effort failed on a bipartisan vote of 6-17.
Glassman acknowledges that the probate courts' computerized system is an improvement. So do lawyers who handle probate cases.
"Having everything online for all 10 counties is a good thing," said attorney Patrick Wood. Previously getting access to probate records meant going to the specific probate court where the records were filed. Wood acknowledged that while there is room for improvement in the system, it is not broken. He believes those improvements can be accomplished by the probate clerks' offices and not by handing back more responsibilities to probate registers.
Court officials raised objections about the bill when it had a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, said Rouillard. Court officials were asked Monday morning for their position on the matter. At mid-afternoon the court agreed to be interviewed about its positions on the bill next week.
Gray noted, "As we have gone into the process (of hearing and debating this bill) the courts understand that there are a good number of representatives in the House who support this." Gray added the he is hopeful that the courts would come up with "helpful suggestions" seeing that "there is some merit to parts of this bill."
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