Key Takeaways From The Monitor’s Probate Court Investigation

Earlier this month, the Maine Monitor published a report based on an investigation into the many issues surrounding Maine’s probate court system. The investigation, which is the result of more than half a year of work, provides a glimpse into the shortcomings of the county-level courts, which have been unable to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the investigation.

The Probate Courts Aren’t A Part Of The State Judicial Branch
Maine’s probate courts are unique – they consist of 16 part-time county judges who conduct their operations independently. These aren’t a part of Maine’s judicial branch. Unlike the state’s standard review and appointment system for judges, the judges of the probate court are part-time and assume office through the process of election.

According to state law, the county probate judges have the authority to approve adult guardianship. In other words, they are responsible for selecting guardians who will take care of the needs of incapacitated elderly people, as well as people with disabilities and debilitating mental issues.

As per Navarre probate lawyers, the judges usually operate autonomously from the state judicial system and each other. These county-funded and county-run courts operate on a limited budget, with the annual salaries of the judges being as low as $25,000.

A System Overhaul Is Pending For Over Half A Century
Maine, which has a total population of around 1.4 million people, is also home to the oldest population in the US. The state has the highest percentage of people aged over 65 years. While the county probate courts are responsible for deciding who will make the decision regarding the care of senior residents, the system needs an overhaul to improve how it functions.

However, plans for changing the structure of the system and increasing funding have met with rejection from state lawmakers, probate judges, and county officials for the last 56 years. But legal experts believe that the county probate courts need to become a part of the state’s judicial branch to protect the most vulnerable of Maine’s residents.

A Severely Unorganized System
While the county probate judges are authorized to approve adult guardianship, the system for screening, training, and monitoring such guardians is severely lacking. According to the investigation by the Maine Monitor, the county probate courts don’t have the budget, employees, or resources for consistently overseeing and following up on the guardianships.

Through guardianship, the court restricts the freedom of a person to make their own life choices, instead delegating those important decisions to another individual. While the position of a guardian is unpaid, they may be reimbursed for fees.

At present, around 1,200 people are under a public guardianship overseen by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, thousands of individuals are under the guardianship of friends or family members appointed by the county probate courts. However, even the courts do not know the exact number of guardianships they have approved. In fact, since courts do not track guardianships, they are unaware of the current conditions of hundreds or potentially thousands of incapacitated adults.

In addition, very few courts run a background check on the guardians to identify whether they have been previously convicted of a crime or have filed for bankruptcy.

In 2019, the state law was revised to make it mandatory for new guardians to file a report with the court every year to provide an update regarding the well-being of the incapacitated person to the judge. However, according to the Maine Monitor investigation, not many judges go through them. The lack of a structured system, therefore, often leads to the neglect of vulnerable people.


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