If you make your living in and around our probate courts you’ll find the FY 2016-17 Probate Court Statistical Reference Guide interesting reading. The chart below provides the “cases filed” data for three of our largest circuits/counties: Miami-Dade (11th Cir), Broward (17th Cir), and Palm Beach (15th Cir).
And because one year’s snapshot is only so useful, the chart also reports the per-judge average case filing numbers for the prior four years to reflect trends over time.
|Type of Case||Miami-Dade (11th Cir)||Broward (17th Cir)||Palm Beach (15th Cir)|
|Other Social Cases||1,725||383||212|
*In Palm Beach County (15th Cir) there are 9 part time probate judges. For purposes of the chart I count them as 4.5 full time probate judges.
So what’s it all mean?
In Miami-Dade – on average – each probate judge took on 2,535 NEW cases in FY 2016-17, in Broward the figure was slightly higher at 2,901/judge, with Palm Beach scoring the lowest at 1,896/judge. Keep in mind these case-load figures (which have remained relatively constant over the last five years) 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 represent the vast majority of the matters handled by a typical probate judge, but when it comes to that small % of estates 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 planners if we don’t anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the structural limitations inherent to an overworked and underfunded state court system. As I’ve previously written here, one important aspect of that kind of planning should be “privatizing” the dispute resolution process to the maximum extent possible by including mandatory arbitration clauses in all our wills and trusts. Arbitration may not be perfect, but at least you get some say in who’s going to decide your case 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 our 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 hearing.
You’d be surprised how varied a probate judge’s docket is:
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, you’ll want to read the official definition given for each of the categories listed in my chart by the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator 2016-17 Glossary:
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, F.S.
Substance Abuse Act (Marchman Act):
Other Social Cases (Probate):
All other matters involving involuntary commitment not included under the Baker and Substance Abuse Act categories. All matters involving the following, but not limited to:
- Adult Protective Services Act cases pursuant to Section 415.104, F.S.
- Developmental disability cases under Section 393.11, F.S.
- Incapacity determination cases pursuant to sections 744.3201, 744.3215, and 744.331, F.S.
- Review of surrogate or proxy’s health care decisions pursuant to Section 765.105, F.S., and rule 5.900, Florida Probate Rules
- Tuberculosis control cases pursuant to Sections 392.55, 392.56, and 392.57, F.S.
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, F.S.; appointment of guardian advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities pursuant to section 393.12, F.S.; and actions to remove the disabilities of non-age minors pursuant to sections 743.08 and 743.09, F.S.
All matters relating to the right of property, real or personal, held by one party for the benefit of another pursuant to Chapter 736, F.S.