An Act To Reorganize the Probate Courts
CONCEPT DRAFT SUMMARY
This bill is a concept draft pursuant to Joint Rule 208.
Maine voters amended the Constitution of Maine in 1967 and conditionally repealed the office of Probate Judge and Register. The repeal is to become effective when the Legislature reforms the probate court system and provides it with full-time judges. Many legislative changes have been made to this system since that time. Most recently, the 128th Legislature passed Legislative Document 123, An Act To Recodify and Revise the Maine Probate Code, Public Law 2017, chapter 402. This was a comprehensive effort to update each area of the law that involved the probate courts. While these changes to the Probate Code and similar changes since 1967 have made the system different, there have been a number of unsuccessful legislative efforts to address the need for full-time judges as envisioned by the constitutional amendment. This bill proposes to honor the will of the voters and complete that task by:
1. Bringing the probate judge function into the state judicial branch by eliminating the existing office of probate judge and creating a number of new full-time state court judges who specialize in adjudicating probate law matters;
2. Ensuring that Maine residents in all counties have equal and improved access to the services of a judge in probate law matters by reasonably calculating the number of new judge positions needed to fully meet this need; providing that judicial hearings will be held in existing county probate courtrooms so long as these spaces are accessible to all parties; and supplying recording devices and any other equipment necessary for the administration of justice by a state court judge. The judicial branch will be responsible for providing any needed items and compensating the county for the use of the courtrooms. This bill proposes to provide the judicial branch the funding needed for these purposes;
3. Ensuring that all probate law records in all counties are contained in a computerized system with a searchable database that is part of the judicial branch case management system. This bill proposes to provide a reasonable effective date for the accomplishment of that goal and a General Fund appropriation sufficient to cover the cost;
4. Ensuring that Maine law provides that each county has an elected register of probate with an office, staff and authority to deliver informal probate services that do not require a judicial order to the public in a uniform manner. This bill proposes to transfer existing judicial oversight of the register to the state court judge having responsibility for probate law matters in that county; and
5. Providing continuing education through the judicial branch to each register of probate to ensure a common understanding of the law and the responsibilities of a register. This bill proposes to ensure the participation of current registers in the planning, development and presentation of these programs.