Probate: Moving Ahead With the Times, but the Song Remains the Same

Given the many transformations we have seen in 2020, the Probate department hit the ground running with changes early in the year. After a long and successful tenure, Judge John H. Sugiyama retired from the bench in February. Presiding Judge Barry Baskin, supported by Court Executive Officer Kate Bieker, foresaw the need for two full-time probate judges and placed Judge Virginia M. George as supervising judge, and Judge Susanne M. Fenstermacher to operate the probate division.

Prior to the court closure on March 16, 2020, and while the workload continued to increase, Probate Examiners Erica Gillies and Susan Long moved ahead with the addition of the second judge, handling the increasing caseload efficiently and professionally. Up until the closure, retired Probate Examiner Linda Suppanich was also filling in to offer relief.

Experienced courtroom clerks Shannon Perry and Julie Winn have been working with Departments 30 and 15, respectively, keeping the courts organized, while maintaining the many important details of courtroom management.

The “new normal” of the probate court will continue to have litigants utilize the drop boxes outside the Taylor Courthouse for ex parte matters and requested filings. Please also be aware that ex parte matters may not be available for pickup for 48 hours. For the foreseeable future, the probate file examiners will not be directly meeting with parties as in former times, but are available by telephone to field questions and provide information to counsel and self-represented parties regarding their probate matters. Parties are welcome to appear either in person or via CourtCall in both departments and additionally via Zoom in Department 30.

Currently, both departments are also handling the LPS conservatorship trial and status calendars on Tuesdays. These matters are interspersed between the probate bench trials that each department has scheduled, primarily for half days in the afternoons.

Given the constraints imposed by COVID, the intrepid court investigators for the probate division are moving forward with their investigations and subsequent reports for conservatorship matters by interviewing proposed conservatees via Zoom or Skype to ensure the safety of all involved.

Filing stats for the year to date mirror the impact of the court closure and re-opening surge while ultimately leveling off to pre-closure numbers: January: 146; February: 122; March: 110; April: 60; May: 118; June: 167; July: 123; August: 144.

The probate court greatly appreciates the extraordinary efforts of research attorney Julie Woods and probate facilitator Robin Towse. They are professional, diligent and extremely valuable in the day-to-day operations of the probate division.
Finally, a special shout out to all of the probate attorneys who volunteer to sit pro tem for both departments when the judges are away. We very much appreciate their expertise as well as their time.