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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Scandal of Connecticut's Probate Courts (MORE, CLICK HERE)

"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

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.

I am not the only person who gives such advice. If you go for a drive in Connecticut's affluent towns and suburbs in the summer and fall, you'll see all the grey-haired drivers sporting their Florida license plates. Some of these people would leave even if they did not fear Connecticut probate, in order to escape our state income tax and our winter weather. But for many, I am certain, the final straw that causes them to change domicile is the prospect of having their estates ripped off in Connecticut's probate courts. By encouraging these people to leave our state, Connecticut probate causes the state to lose the income tax and other tax revenue that goes where they go.

Connecticut probate is a national scandal. Our bad reputation is long standing. More than 50 years ago, in 1949, Professor Thomas Atkinson of NYU, then the leading American authority on the field, wrote that "Connecticut is just about at the bottom of the list so far as its probate court system is concerned." (59 Yale L.J. at 1409 n. 59 (1950).)

I move in national trust and estate circles, where Connecticut probate is routinely discussed as a disgrace. For estate planning professionals and law professors, Connecticut is the poster child for how not to organize probate courts.

The Five Core Failings

There are five major (and deeply interconnected) structural flaws in Connecticut probate:
(1) the wasteful multiplicity of our probate courts;
(2) the use of persons who are not legally trained to serve as judges;
(3) the corruption that inheres in having lawyers sit as judges part-time, while they continue to practice law;
(4) the perverse incentives of Connecticut's probate court fee system, which rewards the probate judges for inflicting makework on estates; and
(5) the sustained, self-serving opposition that the probate judges have mounted to protect their turf and fight off benign national trends and standards in probate procedure that would reduce expense for our citizens.

I will discuss each.


Connecticut has 123 separate probate courts, with 123 probate judges, 123 separate offices, 123 separate budgets, 123 separate staffs. A few of the courts operate full time, most do not. Some in fact operate only a few hours a week, although the judges and the staffs obtain such perks of full-time employment as full health insurance. Maintaining these 123 courts and staffs is hugely wasteful, especially the many that sit idle much of the week.

In Essex, for example, whose population is 6,730, I am told that the part-time probate judge takes down about $58,000 in compensation plus full heath insurance.

Nobody has done a careful study of how many probate courts our state really needs, but my starting estimate is about one-tenth the number we have. A dozen courts rather than ten dozen, staffed with professional judges and operating full time, would do a far better job at a fraction of the cost.

Connecticut probate is horribly expensive. Filing fees and subsequent charges are far higher than elsewhere. Recently, the probate courts extended their fees to nonprobate transfers such as life insurance and joint tenancy, for which, by definition, no probate services are needed. The reason our citizens suffer these voracious fees is quite simple: Our citizens are being made to feed ten times more probate courts and probate judges than they need.

Amateur Judges

Connecticut law does not require probate judges to be legally trained, even though probate judges make legal decisions that affect the property and liberty of our citizens. These judges decide who owns the property of a decedent, they decide whether to strip a citizen of his or her liberty by declaring the citizen incompetent. Such powers ought not to be in the hands of persons who lack legal training. If you exercise the power to take away somebody's liberty or property, you should have a strong command of the complex substantive and procedural rules that are meant to govern such decisions.

Indeed, it is far from clear that Connecticut probate could withstand constitutional scrutiny on this ground under the Due Process clause of the U.S. Constitution. When liberty and property are at stake, the state has an obligation to operate under procedures commensurate with the seriousness of the affected interests. See, e.g., Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).

Connecticut's reliance on nonlawyer judges contributes directly to the wastefulness of our probate procedure. It is the source of the Duplicate Trial rule, that is, the rule that allows appeal de novo to the Superior Court. In this way, Connecticut allows a litigant who is determined to have a contested probate matter heard by a professional judge to do so, but only after making that person pay for two full trials.

Part-Time Judges

Fortunately, many of our probate judges are legally trained. Unfortunately, most of those are part-timers who practice law when they are not serving as judges. The result is rampant conflict-of-interest and cronyism. If you are the probate judge in Bethany on Monday and I am the probate judge in Woodbridge on Tuesday, and we each practice law before each other, or our partners practice there, abuse is invited. I am reluctant to rule against you or your partner, because I know that you could rule unfavorably against the case that my partner or I am handling before you. The danger of favoritism in such circumstances is ever present.

The solution is obvious. Judges should be required to be full-time officers of justice, legally trained, but forbidden to practice law or to be partners in law firms. We do not need 123 full-time probate judges. Thus, achieving proper professionalization of our probate courts is intimately connected to reducing the number of these courts.

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.

Fighting Reform

We know exactly how to fix probate procedure in the United States. The Uniform Law Commission worked out the reform model in the 1960s, when it brought together leading judges, legislators, and scholars to draft the Uniform Probate Code. The Code calls for full time professional judges, upgraded to the level of the court of general jurisdiction, and the Code reforms probate procedure by eliminating makework. The Code is in effect in many states, from Maine to Hawaii.

The essential procedural reform in the Code is the rule that estate administration need not be subjected to detailed court supervision unless an interested party petitions for such supervision. The Code reflects the understanding that most executors or administrators are trustworthy family members or professional fiduciaries who can administer estates faithfully without detailed and costly court supervision. The Code makes unsupervised administration the norm, while preserving the option for any mistrustful or aggrieved party to remove the estate from that track and insist upon judicial supervision.

For four decades many Connecticut probate judges have used their considerable political influence to keep our state from moving in this direction. The reason is simple: They want the fees. Our corrupt system of franchise-style probate courts has given the judges a powerful vested interest in preventing reforms that would lower costs and speed probate procedure.

Tarnishing Connecticut Justice

One of the saddest features of Connecticut's corrupt probate system is that it tarnishes the whole of the state's system of justice. In truth, apart from probate, Connecticut has what is surely one of the finest civil justice systems in the United States. The trial and appellate benches are staffed with able judges, selected largely on merit, who have developed a splendid reputation for trustworthy judicial administration.

The obvious solution to our probate mess, when you have superior courts as good as ours, and probate courts as disgraceful as ours, is to abolish the probate court and merge it into a specialized division of the superior court. That solution, widely followed in other states, is what the Uniform Probate Code has long recommended.


Anonymous said...

It is not just Connecticut - it is a national scandal maintained by greedy attorneys/judges (Trust & Estate Bar) that prey of the dead and their families.

Anonymous said...

It's not just CT or NY.... it's everywhere in the U.S. because think they can get away with stealing legacies. And they HAVE been getting away with it. I'd like to see the corruption with judges and lawyers hit the presidential election discussions

Anonymous said...

Will second that - same thing in Florida - don't let anyone tell you different - remember that clown they called a Probate Judge down here on the Anne Nicole Smith case - he had his 15 minutes of fame for the cameras and now he's gone!

Anonymous said...

I too had a negative experience in a family members estate. The lawyer that was handling the estate for us said he could see our point but told us that there was nothing we could do and if we attempted it would cost us a terrible amount of money and that would be a total waste. This is the way the Judge wanted it.He told us to take what we got and go and live our lives. We always wondered about the whole thing? After reading this blog and others we have a better understanding of what goes on (we had no knowledge of these things) and how you can not trust the professionals (lawyers etc.) that you hire, they are the ones who will rip you off.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, does this Prof. up at Yale have it right and that's not the half of it. It is an organized effort to pick the bones of the dead. I saw it first hand with our family.

Anonymous said...

Well there was another Judge in the Anna Nicole case Judge Kordav he was caught smoking pot in a drug free zone area. But apparently he gets on his knees a lot he got some community service, retirement pension, no jail time it was only a drug free zone within yards of children playing. Since he loves children so much when he is high. Victims of this rat who destroy entire families by separating mothers and fathers from their children depending on who pay him the most, during custody cases that he used to handle or mishandle. The State of Florida feels this pot head is so qualified the Florida Department of Children and Families(DCF).

Anonymous said...

DCF has offered him a job to gamble with children's life the requierments are he must be high like a kyte.

Anonymous said...

the westchester county, new york surrogate judge Anthony Scarpino was employed at Bankers Trust Company, yet, he routinely sits on estate and trust involving Bankers Trust Company as a fiduciary, that by the way became a convicted federal felon in july does he do that?.........why do his alleged superiors permit it?

Anonymous said...

a certain prestigious firm in Darien CT has an extremely corrupt probate attorney on staff....

Anonymous said...

I wonder if that is the same attorney we had. Unbelievably, he had us chased across the country attempting to have us "removed"---one car from Wilton followed us through to Wyoming...more later

Anonymous said...

There is a publication pending which details the above attorney's actions.

Anonymous said...

More Information: the attorney in question had ties with the Latin Kings and tried to use these ties to dispose of his clients. Motive? greed and fear.
1.)he wanted their assets
2.) he made enough mistakes to be disbarred- blatant lies and such.

Anonymous said...

More information: The CT state's attorney was all set to take the case back in October then suddenly changed his mind in January and said just to file a grievance with CT bar. Evidently, the case was too much for him to want to handle. We are going public and also contacting other resources.

If you have any suggestions- all are welcome

Anonymous said...

PETER E. PFLAUM,Petitioner,v. THOMAS PFLAUM, ET AL. Respondents Case No. SC08-378 Lower Tribunal No. 1 D07-6102 (Trial court No.: 2004-CP-0770)
Ruling on Poor People's Right

Here comes Dr. Peter Pflaum, PRO SE. For a century this court was deaf to the claims for the civil rights of its African American population. For a 100 years the court were blind to violations of the 14th amendment until the Federal Courts forced a change. From the 1860’s to the 1960’s the judges were blind to the denial of due process because of a persons color. Now the same is true for citizens who are indigent. The law protects indigent people but the court is deaf, blind, and mute to making these rights effective.
1.) The court is completely lacking in the sense of a fair hearing.
2. Deaf relating to the poor.
3. Unwilling or refusing to listen; heedless: was deaf to our objections.
blind 2. a. Performed or made without the benefit of background information that might inform the outcome or result: b. Performed without preparation, experience, or knowledge c. Performed by rote procedures and without the use of insight:
3. Unable or unwilling to perceive or understand: blind to a lower court's faults.
4. Not based on reason or evidence; unquestioning:
6. Independent of human control:
7. a. Difficult to comprehend b. Incompletely or illegibly addressed: c. Hidden from sight: d. Screened from the view. e. Secret or otherwise undisclosed:
8. Closed at one end: 9. Having no opening: a blind wall
4. Used as an intensive: Thieves in the bazaar robbed us blind. 3. To deprive of perception or insight: prejudice that blinded them to the merits of the proposal.
4. To withhold light from:
In a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution and the constitution and laws of the United States and Florida, Dr. Peter E. Pflaum has been denied the basic rights to the judicial process. Over four years there has NEVER been a hearing or decision on the facts and the law. Not only has there been violation of basic due process but the “crack legal team” of Mr. Hoppe and Mr. White, hired by Thomas Pflaum, Esq. has been completely successful in seeing that Peter never gets a hearing at all. They have spent $700,000 dollars to assist Thomas in taking all of the estate of Melanie Pflaum, deceased March 5th 2004 without ever having to answer the questions of facts and the law.
Executive Summary
“We may not know the truth when we see it because we haven’t seen it for so long.” .

Anonymous said...

Sounds like our present probate ATTY. He saw to it our that our living family member was taken care of by Interim Health - a horrible unethical nursing care group. The last weekend of our loved ones life a RN named Tiba came over & administered Twice the normal dosage of a strong drug that she should have! That's illegal. We called over & over Interim health but NO ONE seemed to care including Angie Dolan, the CNA who was present at home with our loved one! Our family member was literally like a zombie after the unethical double dosage! When we finally got a hold of Dr Hong, our loved one's dr, he was shocked to hear what had transpired!
Stay away from a prominent lawyer firm in East Hartford who also specialize in Defense suits. This same lawyer was actually the defense ATTY for a major Mafia Kingpin...
How or where does one effectively complain against an unethical Connecticut lawyer?
I would guess outside of CT would be the best way...

Anonymous said...

We are also being stalked , harassed & having our civil rights continually violated no matter where we live. The same Probate ATTY has now lost over tens of thousands of dollars of the trust fund money, even though he "claimed" in writing he was not allowed to touch the principal of the trust fund!
Shocking , isn't it!? Or maybe not considering just HOW corrupt CT has become.
Le's hope & pray our present Governor will start to go after these corrupt probate ATTYz & probate judges immediately...

Corrupt Courts Administrator said...

People with specific information regarding corruption in and around Connecticut's Probate Courts are asked to contact us at Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If you value your life, your family's life, even your pet's life, & your life's saving, do Not use the attorney F. Leone, from Leone, Throwe, Teller & Naigle in E. Hartford.
He will attempt over & over to ruin your life & your family's life.
If you are sick, he'll recommend health care workers whose RNs illegally give you more dosage of strong medicine than your doctor prescribed to you.
You'll die an early death if you use F. Leone.
He's dishonest & unethical.

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