Six takeaways from the Monitor’s probate court investigation

Maine’s probate courts leave some of the state’s most vulnerable people at risk.
A glass door with a gold tint and the phrase "Judge of Probate" across the glass door. The seal of the Cumberland Probate Court appears above the phrase.
The Maine Monitor published Sunday an investigation about the shortcomings of Maine’s unique probate court system. Photo by Fred J. Field.

On Sunday, The Maine Monitor published an investigation about the shortcomings of Maine’s unique probate court system.

It’s the culmination of more than six months of work, and is the beginning of a look at the 16 county-level courts that oversee guardianships, wills, estates and name changes.

Here are six takeaways from that story.

Calls to overhaul the courts have been ignored for more than a half century

For nearly 56 years, state lawmakers, county officials and probate judges have rejected plans to overhaul the structure of and increase funding for Maine’s county probate courts. Legal experts say the probate courts need to become part of the state’s judicial branch to protect Maine’s most vulnerable residents — people like Norman Fisher, who died while under public guardianship.

Maine’s courts are unique

Maine’s probate courts stand alone. They are not a part of the state judicial branch. Their judges are part-time and elected, which bypasses the state’s review and appointment process for all other judges.

They operate largely autonomously from each other and the state supreme court. County-funded and county-run, probate courts operate on shoestring budgets, with judges paid as little as $25,000 a year and few court administrators.

The courts need money and resources to do their jobs

The probate courts don’t have sufficient budgets or employees to consistently screen, train or monitor the guardians they appoint, the Monitor found.

The Maine Monitor sent a survey to the 16 county probate courts and received responses from 10 that revealed some probate judges and registers do little to assess the fitness of a guardian before or after they are appointed. 

Only three probate courts that responded run background checks on prospective guardians to see whether they have been convicted of a crime.

None of the responding probate courts run credit checks to see if the guardian filed for bankruptcy, which must be disclosed by the applicant. State law says guardians must have “regular” visits, although none of the probate courts that responded have policies about how frequent those visits should be.

The courts don’t know how many guardianships they’ve approved

There is such a lack of oversight that multiple probate courts don’t know how many guardianships they have approved, or even whether the people they are responsible for are still alive, the ongoing investigation by the Monitor found.

There’s no mechanism for consistent followup once a guardianship is created

The probate courts don’t employ full-time investigators whose sole job would be to follow up on guardianships to make sure adults under guardianship are being treated well by their guardians.

Probate court is another anomaly in Maine’s judicial system

As the Monitor has previously reported, Maine was the only state to not have a public defender system.

After the Monitor focused attention on that shortcoming, the Legislature created a five-person roaming public defender team that travels to courts where local private lawyers cannot meet all of the criminal defense needs of a county.

State lawmakers also increased wages to $150 an hour for criminal defense lawyers, who contract with the state to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

In addition, Maine consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation for judicial compensation. All of the state’s judges are paid below the national median salary, even without factoring in probate judges’ lower salaries.

Members of a 2021 legislative study commission proposed that probate judges be made full-time and paid the same as a district court judge — currently $145,642 a year — if the probate courts were moved into the state judicial branch. 

Probate judges’ pay would still be below the national median judge salary of $168,761, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Logos for the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Investigative Editing Corps and Report for America.
This project is supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and support from Investigative Editing Corps and Report for America.

Samantha Hogan

Samantha Hogan focuses on government accountability projects for The Maine Monitor. She joined the newsroom as its first full-time reporter in 2019 with Report for America. Samantha was named the 2021 Maine’s Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association, and spent 2020 reporting on Maine’s court system through the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Her reporting on county jails recording and listening to attorney-client phone calls won the Silver Gavel award from the American Bar Association and was also a semi-finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2023. Samantha previously worked for The Frederick News-Post and interned twice for The Washington Post.
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Judge David Paris speaks with an individual (not shown) in front of a sign that lists him as the county's probate judge.

Calls to overhaul Maine probate courts have stalled for half a century. The most vulnerable people may be at risk.

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