Probate Judge’s Role,
Newtown, Bethel, Redding, Ridgefield
We sat down with Attorney Jennifer Collins, the GOP candidate for Judge of Probate for the 45th District, serving Newtown, Bethel, Redding, and Ridgefield, Connecticut, to learn what Probate Courts and Probate Judges do—and whether bringing a will or other family matter to Probate Court is as difficult or intimidating as many fear. (Spoiler alert: the answer is ‘No.’) The election is Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, and Attorney Collins also has the endorsement of the Independent Party of Connecticut, the third largest party in the state, which means she will appear on both the Republican and Independent Party lines on the ballot.
Q: What is Probate Court?
A: When most people think of the term probate and Probate Court, they envision the traditional role of the court overseeing the distribution of assets in the estate of someone who has passed away to those legally entitled to the assets. When that person had a will, the executor of the will must follow a proscribed procedure in carrying out the distribution of assets as instructed by the decedent in the will. Fortunately, Connecticut Probate Courts have and distribute a guide to the process of administering an estate.
The process begins with filing the will and a Petition/Administration or Probate of Will form within 30 days of the decedent’s death, as well as filing a death certificate. (If that will was prepared by a licensed attorney, a copy will already have been filed with the court that has jurisdiction in the municipality where the decedent lived.)
The Probate Court ensures that any debts, funeral expenses, taxes, and estate administration fees are paid before approving the distribution of the remaining assets of the estate. This involves, in part, the filing of an estate tax return. While probating a will does not require having an attorney, the process is complex enough that most people seek professional assistance.
When a person who owns property or other assets dies without a will, assets are divided according to Connecticut’s laws of intestacy. For example, in a case where there is a surviving spouse and children of the decedent and spouse, the spouse would be given the first $100,000 in assets and one-half of any remainder, while the child or children would be given the other half of the remainder.
While those are a Probate Court’s most well-known roles, as the State of Connecticut’s Probate Court website explains, “Probate Courts protect the rights of individuals and ensure care, safety and community-based solutions for thousands of our most vulnerable residents and their families in times of need.”
Beyond probating wills and overseeing the distribution of estate assets, courts handle broad array of issues that affect children, the elderly, and those living with intellectual and other disabilities. This includes the supervision of trusts and conservatorships, as well as adoptions, terminations of parental rights, guardianship matters and temporary custody issues, and even changes of name.
The state’s Probate Court website provides access to all the necessary Probate Court forms, which are fillable, as well as electronic filing.
Q: It all seems difficult and intimidating, is that the case?
A: No. While Probate Court judges and staff are not allowed to provide legal advice, you’ll find that they are among the most caring, and most helpful officials and administrators you’ll encounter. After all, the DNA of their roles involves engaging with Connecticut residents and families that are often dealing with one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Probate Judges, clerks, and staff are there to ease that stress, calmly and helpfully explain the process for whatever issue has brought an individual or family to Probate Court, and provide not just oversight of that process but also a support system as the matter is considered and resolved.
The best Probate Judges are not only attorneys who are highly qualified and experienced in matters of Connecticut law and procedure but also caring, compassionate, and highly engaged individuals.
Also, it’s worth noting for those who might feel intimidated that the vast majority of probate hearings are informal and meant to provide a way to have their voices heard, to obtain important information, and to work through differences—typically in a way that’s more collaborative than the word “hearing” suggests.
Q: Is there a Probate Court in every town?
A: No. While Connecticut’s larger municipalities tend to have their own Probate Courts, the state underwent a Probate Court consolidation in 2011 that created regional Probate Courts serving groups of communities. Our Probate Court is the Northern Fairfield County Probate District (Region 45), which serves Newtown, Bethel, Redding, and Ridgefield as one of 54 probate districts in the state.
Our 45th District Probate Court is centrally located in Bethel at Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center at 1 School St. The hours are Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the phone number is 203-794-8508. Each district town has information about the Probate Court on its municipal website.
Q: So what does a Judge of Probate do?
A: First, let me note that Judge of Probate is an elected position, which makes Probate Judges the only Judicial Branch members who are elected. To me that’s a signal that rather than sitting in “judgment,” Probate Judges are more like advocates who help individuals and families in a time of need. Because those “constituents” come from communities served by a specific Probate Court, the voters there are given the right to choose the Probate Judge.
Once in office, a Probate Judge is the chief administrator for all the functions of a Probate Court. The role involves different functions for different issues.
For example, with regard to probating wills, a Probate Judge may be called upon to discern the precise meaning of language used. While providing careful oversight on the administration of estates, a judge may have to determine title to real estate.
Probate Judges appoint guardians for individuals with disabilities, appoint conservators for an individual, and often for their estate, while also sending people to healthcare or treatment facilities when such action is necessary.
In family matters, Probate Judges can terminate the parental rights of those who are unfit or unable to fulfill their responsibilities. Judges appoint guardians for minors, grant adoptions, and even free minors from familial situations when necessary.
Granting name changes is another responsibility of a Probate Judge, who can also grant U.S. Passport applications.
Q: What qualifications make someone a good Probate Judge?
A: In Connecticut, to be elected Judge of Probate you have to be, or have been, an attorney certified through the Connecticut Bar. As that indicates, the foundational qualifications involve a deep understanding of Connecticut laws and procedures governing all matters that come before a Probate Court for resolution.
I say “foundational” qualifications because, as indicated earlier, it’s my strong belief that the best Probate Judges are those whose core competencies are enhanced by qualities of empathy, engagement, caring, compassion, and perspective.
Knowledge of law and procedure, as well as a sense of “justice” and fairness are the attributes in a judge that make a Probate Court function properly and well. That latter list of enhanced qualities, meanwhile, are the things that will have the greatest positive impact on the individuals and families coming to Probate Court.