If you make your living in and around our probate courts (or as an estate planner, doing everything possible to avoid our probate courts), you’ll find the FY 2011-12 Probate Court Statistical Reference Guide interesting reading. Below I’ve charted the “cases filed” data for three of our largest circuits/counties: Miami-Dade (11th Cir), Broward (17th Cir), and Palm Beach (15th Cir).
But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. To understand the breadth of issues a typical probate judge contends with in an average year, below is the official definition given for each of the listed categories. Finally, as a rough measure of how busy these judges are on average, I took the total filing figure and divided it by the number of probate judges serving in each respective county.
So what’s it all mean?
In Miami-Dade – on average – each judge took on 2,742 NEW cases in FY 2011-12, in Broward the figure was even higher at 2,819/judge, with Palm Beach scoring the lowest at 1,463/judge. Keep in mind these figures don’t take into account each judge’s EXISTING case load or other administrative duties. These stat’s may be appropriate for uncontested proceedings, which likely represent 99% of the matters handled by a typical probate judge, but when it comes to that 1% of cases that are litigated, these same case-load numbers (confirmed by personal experience) make two points glaringly clear to me:
 We aren’t doing our jobs as estate planners if we don’t anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the structural limitations inherent to an overworked and underfunded court system. As I’ve previously written here, one important aspect of that kind of planning should be mandatory arbitration clauses in our wills and trusts. Arbitration may not be perfect, but at least you get some say in who your judge is and what his or her minimum qualifications need to be. And in the arbitration process (which is privately funded) you also have a fighting chance of getting your arbitrator to actually read your briefs and invest the time and mental focus needed to thoughtfully evaluate the complex tax, state law and family dynamics underlying these cases (a luxury that’s all but impossible in a state court system that forces judges to juggle thousands of cases at a time with little or no support).
 We aren’t doing our jobs as litigators if we don’t anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the “cold judge” factor I wrote about here; which needs to be weighed heavily every time you ask a court system designed to handle un-contested proceedings on a mass-production basis to adjudicate a complex trial or basically rule on any technically demanding issue or pre-trial motion of any significance that can’t be disposed of in the few minutes allotted to the average probate matter.
|Type of Case||Miami-Dade (11th Cir)||Broward (17th Cir)||Palm Beach (15th Cir)|
|Other Social Cases||902||366||251|
Probate: All matters relating to the validity of wills and their execution; distribution, management, sale, transfer and accounting of estate property; and ancillary administration pursuant to chapters 731, 732, 733, 734, and 735, Florida Statutes.
Guardianship (Adult or Minor): All matters relating to determination of status; contracts and conveyances of incompetents; maintenance custody of wards and their property interests; control and restoration of rights; appointment and removal of guardians pursuant to chapter 744, Florida Statues; appointment of guardian advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities pursuant to section 393.12, Florida Statutes; and actions to remove the disabilities of non-age minors pursuant to sections 743.08 and 743.09, Florida Statutes.
Trusts: All matters relating to the right of property, real or personal, held by one party for the benefit of another pursuant to chapter 736, Florida Statutes.
Florida Mental Health Act or Baker Act: All matters relating to the care and treatment of individuals with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders pursuant to sections 394.463 and 394.467, Florida Statutes.
Other Social Cases: All other matters involving involuntary commitment not included under the Baker and Substance Abuse Act categories. The following types of cases would be included, but not limited to:
- Tuberculosis control cases pursuant to sections 392.55, 392.56, and 392.57, Florida Statutes;
- Developmental disability cases under section 393.11, Florida Statutes;
- Review of surrogate or proxy’s health care decisions pursuant to section 765.105, Florida Statutes, and rule 5.900, Florida Probate Rules;
- Incapacity determination cases pursuant to sections 744.3201, 744.3215, and 744.331, Florida Statutes;
- Adult Protective Services Act cases pursuant to section 415.104, Florida Statutes.