“The Scandal of Connecticut’s Probate Courts,”
Statement of Prof. John H. Langbein to Conn. Legislature Committee
Professor John H. Langbein
Sterling Professor of Law and Legal History – Yale Law School
Testimony to Connecticut Legislature Committee on Program
Review and Investigations, Hartford, CT. October, 2005
The Fee System
The worst feature of Connecticut’s probate courts is the fee system. These courts are run on the same principle as a Popeye’s Chicken franchise or a Midas Muffler store: The proprietor gets paid by the amount of business he or she can drum up. If you run a Popeye’s outlet, the more chicken you sell, the more money you make. If you run a Connecticut probate franchise, you are also an entrepreneur who can maximize your fee income by making estates engage in needless filings and seek needless approvals. The more work you impose on estates that don’t need it, the more money you make. The more paperwork the judge orders up, the more money finds its way into the judge’s pocket. The sad truth is that much of what goes on in Connecticut probate courts can only be called a shakedown. Our procedures invite judges to extort money from the estates of decedents by insisting upon needless court filings and court approvals.
The perverse financial incentives that pervade our probate system are a disgrace. Goal Number One of probate reform in Connecticut should be to sever the link between court proceedings and profit. Any system of judicial procedure that compensates judges or court officers for stirring up more work is wrong.
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Committee to speak about the problems of Connecticut’s probate courts. I specialize in trust, estate, and probate law. I have taught, written, and served as a legislative drafter in the probate field for more than three decades. I am a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and a member of the International Academy of Trust and Estate Law. I serve as one of Connecticut’s Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. For the Uniform Law Commission, I was the reporter and principal drafter of the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, which governs fiduciary investing in Connecticut and most other states. For the American Law Institute, I serve as Associate Reporter for the Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers (Vol. 1, 1999; Vol. 2, 2003, Vol. 3, in preparation).
“Don’t Die in Connecticut”
When citizens of our state ask me about Connecticut probate, I give this simple advice: Try not to die in Connecticut. If you are a person of means, you should–late in life–establish your domicile in some place such as Florida or Maine or Arizona that has a responsible probate system. You can still own a Connecticut home and spend plenty of time here. Indeed, if you place title to your Connecticut home in a Florida trust, your trustee can even transfer the house after your death without going through Connecticut probate.
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