OLR Bill Analysis

HB 6385

AN ACT CONCERNING REFORM OF THE PROBATE COURT SYSTEM.

SUMMARY:

This bill eliminates the 117 probate court districts and replaces them with 36 districts comprised of the towns or parts of the towns that correspond to the boundaries of state senatorial district ( 1) (see BACKGROUND). It makes conforming changes relating to probate children's courts and the pilot program for youth in crisis. The bill requires that each judge of probate elected for a term that begins on or after January 5, 2011, must be a member of the bar of the state of Connecticut and must have been a member for at least 10 years. Under current law, probate judges do not have to be attorneys.

The bill requires that a probate court be open to the public to conduct court business at least 40 instead of 20 hours each week, Monday through Friday, on a regular schedule between the hours of 8 a. m. and 5 p. m. , and eliminates the probate court administrator's authority to adopt binding regulations concerning the hours of court operation.

The bill changes the way in which probate court judges are compensated by requiring that each probate court judge's salary be set by the probate court administrator based upon the weighted workload of each judge's district, but specifies that no probate court judge may receive an annual salary of under $ 80,000 or more than $ 110,000. The bill requires the probate court administration to annually review the salary of each probate court judge. ( 4)

The bill eliminates a process by which any town located in a probate district that desires to (1) consolidate such probate district with one or more districts, (2) be removed from such probate district to a separate district established for any such town, or (3) be located in another probate district, may petition the General Assembly. It also eliminates the duty of the probate court administrator to assist in these processes.

The bill requires the probate court administrator to establish and maintain a budget for the probate court system, allocate the budgets for each court based upon the court's weighted workload, and ensure that all staff, including judges, who are offered insurance or retirement benefits, works at least 20 hours a week.

This bill eliminates a retirement benefit enhancement to probate judges in office after September 30, 1997, whose probate districts are merged and who are not re-elected after the merger.

Finally, the bill makes technical and conforming changes.

EFFECTIVE DATE: January 1, 2011, except the requirement that probate court judges be attorneys becomes effective October 1, 2009 for elections future elections.

2 — REGIONAL CHILDREN'S PROBATE COURT

Current law requires the probate court administrator, within available resources, to establish a regional children's probate court in a region that consists of the probate districts of: New Haven, Branford, East Haven, Hamden, Milford, North Branford, North Haven, Orange, West Haven, and Woodbridge. In establishing the court, the Probate court administrator must consult with the probate judges of these districts, each of whom may participate on a voluntary basis.

The bill instead requires the probate court administrator, within available resources, to establish a regional children's probate court in a probate district that must consist of, or be adjacent to, one or more of the same towns. In establishing this court, the bill requires the probate court administrator to consult with the probate judge of such district who may participate on a voluntary basis.

3 — PILOT PROGRAM FOR YOUTH IN CRISIS CASES

The bill requires the probate court administrator to establish, within available appropriations, a pilot program in a probate district that includes all or part of Middletown, instead of the probate district of Middletown, to exercise jurisdiction over and administer youth in crisis cases arising in the district in which the youths in crisis are not truants.

4 — PROBATE JUDGE'S COMPENSATION 

Under current law, the funding of the probate courts, including the compensation of judges, is derived from the statutory fees charged to the users of the court. From these fees, the judge is required to pay the costs of operating the court, including staff salaries, but excluding the judge's compensation. The net, after payment of those expenses, is applied to a statutory formula that determines the amount of the assessment the judge must pay into the Probate Court Administration Fund, administered by the treasurer. The balance after the assessment, is retained by the judge as compensation. Currently, compensation ranges from under $ 10,000 to the maximum which is currently $ 110,085. Under current law, the maximum amount a probate judge may receive may not exceed 75% of the compensation of a Superior Court judge.  

The bill instead requires that each probate court judge's salary be set by the probate court administrator based upon the weighted workload of each judge's district, but specifies that no probate court judge may receive an annual salary of under $ 80,000 or more than $ 110,000. The bill requires the probate court administration annually review the salary of each probate court judge.

5 — MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS

The bill requires that each probate judge elected for a term that begins on or after January 5, 2011, must be a member of the bar of the state of Connecticut and must have been a member for at least 10 years.

7 — TOWNS PROVIDING MINIMUM COURT STANDARDS, AND REQUESTING CHANGES TO THEIR DISTRICT

The law requires the town or towns that comprise each probate district to provide court facilities that meet certain minimum statutory standards. The bill eliminates (1) a procedure by which the probate court administrator may meet with municipal officials in towns that fail to satisfy these standards, and (2) the administrator's authority to waive or modify the application of a certain standard.

The bill eliminates a process by which any town located in a probate district that desires to (1) consolidate such probate district with one or more districts, (2) be removed from such probate district to a separate district established for any such town, or (3) be located in another probate district, may, by resolution of its legislative body, petition the General Assembly for such consolidation, separation, and creation of a new probate district or relocation. This eliminated process requires the probate court administrator to provide assistance in the preparation of the petition as the officials of the towns request, and prohibits the consolidation of a probate district with another district until the expiration of the term of office of any probate judge in an affected probate district.

8 — POWERS AND DUTIES OF PROBATE COURT ADMINISTRATOR REGARDING BUDGETS

The bill requires the probate court administrator to establish and maintain a budget for the probate court system, which must:

1. reflect all costs related to the group hospitalization and medical and surgical insurance plan, dental insurance plan, and retirement benefits for probate judges and employees, and

2. be funded solely by revenue generated by the probate courts.

It also requires the probate court administrator to (1) allocate the budgets for each court based upon the court's weighted workload, and ensure that all staff, including judges, who are offered insurance or retirement benefits work at least 20 hours a week.

9 — BUDGET MAKING PROCEDURES

The law requires the probate court administrator to prepare a proposed budget by April 1 of each year for the fiscal year beginning July 1 for the appropriate expenditure of funds from the Probate Court Administration Fund to carry out the probate court administrator's statutory duties. The bill imposes the same requirement with respect to the duty the bill imposes on the probate court administrator to establish and maintain a budget for the probate court system and for each court based on the court's weighted workload.

The bill imposes the same procedural requirements that currently apply to the proposed budget of the probate court administrator on the proposed budget for the probate court system and for each probate court. Specifically, the probate court administrator must submit a proposed budget to the probate assembly's executive committee for review. This committee must return the proposed budget to the probate court administrator by May 1 together with its comments and recommendations. The probate court administrator must prepare a proposed final budget, including changes recommended by the executive committee as he deems appropriate.

By May 15, the probate court administrator must transmit the proposed final budget to the chief court administrator for approval together with the executive committee's comments and recommendations. The chief court administrator must take whenever action on the budget or any portion of it that she deems appropriate by June 15. If the chief court administrator fails to act by June 15 the budget is deemed approved as proposed.

The law allows the probate court administrator to ask the chief court administrator for the authority to spend additional sums from the Probate Court Administration Fund to respond to anything that could not have been reasonably anticipated during the regular budget process. The law allows the probate court administrator to authorize such expenditures for emergency purposes as long as the aggregate amount of the emergency expenditures for any one fiscal year does not exceed $ 5,000.

11 & 12 — RETIREMENT BENEFIT ENHANCEMENT

Effective January 1, 2011, the bill eliminates a retirement benefit enhancement to probate judges whose probate districts are merged and who are not re-elected after the merger. Specifically, it eliminates the right of such judges to (1) receive up to four years of credited service, (2) reduce their retirement age up to four years, or (3) elect a combination of these two options totaling not more than four years.

The law allows judges whose credited service began when or after they turned age 60 to retire with less than 10 years of credited service, provided they have served at least one full (four-year) term as a probate judge.

BACKGROUND

State Senatorial Districts

The boundaries of state senatorial districts are set every 10 years based on redistricting. Thus the probate district boundaries could also change. Following is a map showing the current state senatorial districts. Following it is a link that displays this map in a larger format.

A link to this map in a larger format is below.

Related Bill — HB 6027

HB 6027, favorable reported by the Judiciary Committee on April 1, alters the way probate court judges are compensated by replacing the current system that is primarily based on court revenue and instead using a system based on population and workload. The new system would become effective January 5, 2011 but would require that for the compensation of judges in office on January 4, 2011, for a term beginning January 5, 2011 and ending January 6, 2015, could not be less than 80% of the average annual compensation the judge received for the three-year period from January 1, 2008 to December 31, 2010.

The bill centralizes more control over the operation of each probate court by requiring the probate court administrator to establish a Probate Budget Committee consisting of the probate court administrator and two probate judges appointed by the probate assembly that must establish (1) a compensation plan, which includes employee benefits, for probate court employees; (2) staffing levels for each probate court; and (3) a miscellaneous office budget for each court. The bill makes them binding on the probate courts.

Concerning probate district consolidation, the bill requires the probate court administrator to establish a planning committee for each of nine probate regions he establishes. It requires the committees to seek opportunities to consolidate probate courts into regional probate districts, and to submit a report to the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees by November 15, 2009 containing its recommendations for creating regional probate districts by January 5, 2011. It also establishes certain retirement incentives for certain probate judges and probate court employees.

It permits Superior Court judges to refer certain appeals from probate court to special assignment probate judges.

The bill appropriates to the Office of the Probate Court administrator's office from the General Fund, $ 4,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010, and $ 8,400,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, to cover expenses of persons who use the probate court system who are otherwise unable to pay, and for the cost of probate court retirees' health insurance.

Related Bill HB 6625

The Judiciary favorably reported HB 6625 on April, 1. This bill specifies that calculating a judge's minimum compensation by using the average compensation for the three year period my not be used unless there was no break in the judge's service after the three-year period.

Related Bill sHB 6027

Effective January 5, 2011, sHB 6027 eliminates the probate district of (1) Harwinton consisting of the town of Harwinton, and (2) Roxbury consisting of the town of Roxbury. Effective that same date it adds (1) Harwinton to the probate district of Litchfield, which currently consists of Litchfield, Kent, Morris, and Warren; and (2) adds Roxbury to the probate district of Southbury, which currently consists of the town of Southbury. It makes conforming changes concerning the election of the probate judge for the Litchfield and the South Bury probate districts in 2010, and the jurisdiction of those districts effective January 5, 2011.

COMMITTEE ACTION

Judiciary Committee

Joint Favorable

Yea

31

Nay

6

(04/01/2009)