Register of Probate an Overlooked Gem in State Payroll Jewelry Case

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

If I believed in reincarnation, on my deathbed I'd pray to be a register of probate in my next life.

The job pays over $130,000 a year, has good benefits, and comes with the kind of pension one can no longer find in the private sector.  And a register of probate's term runs for six long years. That's like the longest time you get in elective office around here.

Consider also the job's low-low profile and how that automatically improves an incumbent's odds of being re-elected.

In Massachusetts, there are 14 registers of probate, one for each county. Do you think one person in a hundred in any county could tell you the name of his/her register of probate?

You disappear in plain sight on becoming a register of probate, meaning you duck the contentious issues of the day and avoid the prying eyes of media scandal mongers.  This job entails zero risk of offending large segments of the public.  How good is that.

I'm not saying registers of probate don't do much or are unimportant.  Their work, while lacking excitement, is significant and vital.

Thinking about writing this post, I looked up stuff on the Internet regarding the responsibilities -- the purview -- of a  register of probate.

One of the most succinct descriptions I found was from the archives of WGBH radio, 89.7.  In a September 10, 2014, report on "Bottom of the Ballot" races,  Edgar B. Herwick, III, wrote:

"Getting a divorce? Probate court.  Want to establish a will?  Probate court.  Collecting your inheritance?  Adopting a child?  Changing your last name?  Probate court."

I found a longer, good explanation in an August 22, 2018, interview by reporter Brian Dowd of the Martha's Vineyard Times with two candidates then running for the position in the Democratic primary in Dukes County, Acting Register of Probate Daphne DeVries and challenger Gail Barmakian, an attorney and select person in Oak Bluffs.  Responding to "Why are you running?", Barmakian said:

"The mission of the Probate and Family Court is to deliver timely justice, equal access and assistance with impartiality and respect, which begins at the Probate and Family Court Office.  The Register of Probate is, in essence, the face of that court, and is responsible for seeing that the duties and responsibilities of the office are carried out.  This includes ensuring that paperwork is in order and meets the criteria set out by rules and policy, managing the efficient flow of cases, prioritizing time-sensitive issues, handling matters that are emotional and troubling, with respect and impartiality, and helping to effectuate the just and speedy resolution of family law cases when possible.  The jurisdiction of the court is broad, and doesn't only address the probate of estates, divorces, and child-related issues.  It includes the real issues we see today: providing for elders who can no longer care for themselves; providing for the children of parents who cannot manage them; providing for unmarried couples and the issues of their children when the parents cannot agree; providing for estates for those who have passed away and the aftermath; providing for real estate matters when the owners cannot agree; and consideration of the law as it addresses domestic violence here in our community and throughout the Commonwealth.  As an attorney and an elected public official who is faced with addressing these problems, I believe my qualifications are best suited to fulfill the role of Register of Probate."

If I lived on Martha's Vineyard, I think I would have voted for Barmakian due solely to the breadth and cogency of that response.  I would have been in the minority.

Illustrating that it's hard to lose one of these jobs, Acting Register of Probate DeVries bested Barmakian in the primary, 2,210 votes to 1,636. In the November final, DeVries was unopposed.

BTW, you don't have to be an attorney to run for and serve as a register of probate -- yet another reason every jealous knucklehead can dream the register of probate dream.

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