There are two candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot for judge of the Westport-Weston Probate District.
The duties and responsibilities of a probate judge are many and varied and include: Probating wills and the administration of estates; overseeing testamentary and living trusts, determining title to real and personal property, and interpreting he meaning of wills and trusts.
They also appoint guardians for individuals with intellectual disability, appoint conservators of the person and the estate of incapable individuals, and commit individuals suffering from mental illness, alcoholism or drug addition to an appropriate facility.
Probate judges also remove unfit parents as guardians of their children and also grant adoptions.
The person elected Nov. 5 will be filling a vacancy left by the resignation in April of Judge Kevin O'Grady, who cited declining health as his reason to step down from the probate post. O'Grady, a Democrat, was in his fourth term as probate judge, had served since 1999.
He had been on medical leave since August 2011. During O'Grady's absence, Fairfield's probate judge, Daniel Caruso, served as the interim judge.
Following are candidate-submitted profiles:
Family: Married to Betsy, two children
Education: Boston College, bachelor of arts, 1987; University of Bridgeport School of Law, juris doctor, 1992.
Occupation: Practicing attorney-at-law and associate professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.
The three most important issues in the Probate Court are maintaining the "user friendly" nature of the court by making it accessible to all of the members of our community, making sure that judicial decrees are made according to the law and with the compassion required of each case and closely scrutinizing attorney billing so that estates are not unreasonably burdened by legal bills.
The most important issue that I will face if I am elected Judge of Probate is to make sure that the court continues to be accessible by all of the members in our community, not just those who are represented by attorneys. Many of the people who utilize the Probate Court are self-represented. I will work hard to continue to maintain the user-friendly nature of the court by making myself available whenever needed to answer questions or conduct hearings. I have a long history of providing free legal advice to unrepresented people in our community, which makes me uniquely qualified to continue that type of work as Probate Judge.
Another issue which I plan to address as Probate Judge is to decide each issue before the court with the compassion and thorough application of the law each case requires. Having practiced law for the last 21 years and having taught topics in probate law on the college level for the last 19 years, I have the requisite knowledge of the law which our community deserves.
For the last 20 years, I have been a zealous advocate in protecting women and children victims of domestic violence and seniors who have been financially abused. I will bring my demonstrated compassion in working with the people who come before the court.
One complaint that litigants often have is that attorneys charge too much. In July of this year, new Probate Court rules were published that allow probate judges to more closely scrutinize bills for legal services that attorneys generate in probate matters. I plan to use the new rules and make sure that members of our community are not unduly burdened by legal fees."
Family: Married to Bill Wexler, two children.
Education: Johns Hopkins University, bachelor of arts with honors, 1981; New York University School of Law, juris doctor, 1984. Winner of American Jurisprudence Award for Excellence in Constitutional Law. Admitted to the Bars of NY and CT.
1. The probate judge must stand for integrity in the community. Most people do not know that probate judges are the only judges in Connecticut who are permitted to practice law on the side in an unrestricted way. In 2011, the Connecticut State Ethics Commission recommended prohibiting this policy due to potential conflicts of interest. However, the legislation did not pass. I have pledged not to accept new clients and not to handle any transactional or litigated matters which would involve facing an attorney on the other side. Why? Because if you were being represented by an attorney whose opponent was a sitting judge, you would not get the zealous representation you deserve. Your attorney would be afraid to fight too hard for you because he would probably have to stand before the judge on another matter for another client. Therefore, I am taking myself out of the adversary process altogether. I will not use this position to enrich myself by attracting new clients, nor will I be in competition with the local bar. We all deserve a Probate Court that does not carry even the appearance of impropriety.
2. The probate judge represents those who do not have a voice, either because they have passed on, or because they are incapable while alive of speaking for themselves. The cases are divided between estates of those who have died, and appointments of conservators and guardians for people with dementia, autism, Down's syndrome or mental health problems. The probate judge must make sure that all fees paid to fiduciaries (guardians, conservators, attorneys and executors) are not excessive and that estates of incompetent people are not being looted by greedy people. The probate judge must also ensure that the new Probate Rules, effective July of 2013, are easy to understand and simplify the process as they were intended to do.
3. Because our own Probate Court has been without a full-time judge for almost two years, our next probate judge must examine all the current cases to make sure that we are up to date in terms of notices, hearings, and general, regular communication between the court, the wards and the fiduciaries.
One of my first priorities if elected will be to read all the files for contested cases to move them along, because delay costs families money and time they cannot afford.