Another View -- Alan Glassman: Restore registers of probate to improve customer serviceBy ALAN GLASSMAN
January 02. 2018 9:30PM
I ran for Belknap County Register of Probate in 2016 after learning that the role of registers of probate had been reduced to virtually no responsibilities under the circuit court system put in place in 2011.
Since then, many people, having suffered losses of loved ones, were finding it very difficult to navigate the procedures and paperwork required to settle an estate. I felt that with my background in solving procedural problems with automated systems, I would be able to help determine what, if anything, needed to be done to address these problems.
After meeting with other registers of probate, listening to probate court judges testify at hearings, and hearing from people who had encountered difficulties dealing with the probate process, I determined that the new circuit court, although having made some extraordinary computer system improvements to the process, was lacking one key element that had been in place before 2011: customer service.
With the court running the operation, people, many in their 80s and 90s, were simply being told “hire a lawyer if you can’t figure it out." Now fully automated, the process can be confusing, with no one available to provide assistance.
Last year, the Senate considered a constitutional amendment to eliminate the register of probate positions, the sixth such attempt since 1996, but that effort failed on a bipartisan vote of 6-17. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee held on to HB 476, a bill that would restore some of the duties of our elected county registers of probate.
In 2011, the courts asked the Legislature to establish a circuit court system, and took responsibility for probate away from the elected county officials outlined in our state constitution. The House is scheduled to take up HB 476 on Wednesday morning, and I believe it is time to give back to county registers of probate their constitutional responsibilities.
Registers of probate would provide the customer service to citizens who need it, while maintaining the automated system that has worked well for many people.
Registers would have read-only access to the court’s computer databases in order to assist families who might need more personalized assistance. Registers would be able to monitor matters before the probate court in order to help assure citizens that their estates will be treated honestly, fairly, and in a timely fashion.
The restored office of Register of Probate would not be funded from county funds. A portion of probate fees collected by the circuit court would be earmarked for that purpose. Registers would be paid according to how the county delegation viewed the workload of their register (full time, part time or per diem.)
The court’s e-file Turbo system would continue to function as designed. Registers would not interfere with the Turbo system.
Contrary to what has also been erroneously publicized, registers of deeds would not be forced to make room for a work area for the registers of probate. Instead, the county commissioners and the county legislative delegation would together decide where to provide a minimal work space for the registers of probate to meet with the public. The hours and location would be wholly at the discretion of the county. Also, of note, is that registers would be able to work remotely from their homes or other suitable locations.
Since the register’s office was effectively eliminated by statute in 2011, customer service for those attempting to settle their estates under the present system is very problematic. This is true even with the establishment of a telephone hotline by the court, which offers only minimal information to callers. In turn, many people who make inquiries in person are being advised to seek the services of an attorney. This hassle and expense could be avoided by restoring authority for this constitutional county office.
Gone is the helpful culture of personal service and assistance the registers of probate had provided people for more than 300 years, during one of the most difficult times in our lives. The offices of the registers of probate and of deeds were always seen as the least political or partisan positions in New Hampshire government.
I, and five of my colleagues, the registers of probate from Carroll, Grafton, Hillsborough, Merrimack, and Strafford counties, who have been working for nearly two years on this legislation, would like to keep it that way. We urge the House to approve HB 476.
Alan Glassman is the Belknap County Register of Probate.