Probate Court Swallows Small Inheritances; Senators Want it to Stop

Sen. Janelle Sarauw talks to Regina Petersen. (Photo by Omari Hicks, Legislature of the Virgin Islands.)

The question for senators at a Committee on Rules and Judiciary hearing Thursday was not whether the legal system should be changed so more residents can avoid probate, but how much it should change.

Sen. Alicia Barnes has introduced a bill increasing the value of estates that can avoid probate from $300 to $100,000.

It has long been acknowledged the territory’s probate system has a problem.

Regina Petersen, the administrator of courts for the territory, said 700 to 800 probate cases are backlogged presently and the average time it takes to resolve a case is a year.

She said the Judiciary has implemented reforms to deal with the backlog — new rules for proceedings, and increasing the number of clerk positions in the probate division and ensuring that those positions are filled. In 2018 the court added a dedicated probate law clerk to its budget request and has been trying to fill that position.

However, she added, the court can’t solve the problem on its own. The bill offered by Barnes would help, according to Petersen.

She said she was reticent about making a specific recommendation to the Senate, but raising the threshold for probate to $100,000 seemed to her more in line with probate law on the mainland.

Marjorie Whalen, an associate at the law firm of Kellerhals Ferguson Kroblin and a specialist in commercial litigation and probate, testified in favor of the bill.

“Many states have thresholds above $100,000 for summary administration, and making a larger threshold in the Virgin Islands could make a substantial positive impact on the backlog of probate matters overburdening our courts,” she said. “More importantly, increasing the threshold would significantly reduce the expense for Virgin Islanders probating smaller estates and it would enable those families to use the inherited property and assets more quickly.  Right now, even in the best of circumstances, we are forced to advise our clients that a probate matter could take one year or longer to fully administer in our probate courts. The expense of both time and money for a year-plus probate just doesn’t make sense for estates valued below $100,000.”

Sen. Myron Jackson said he is in favor of setting the threshold at $100,000.

Sen. Novelle Francis said that maybe $50,000 would be the right number for now, which could be amended to $100,000 later. He emphasized that no matter what the figure is residents should make plans for estate transfers before deaths occur.

When asked whether the proposed law would change the status of the hundreds of cases still in backlog, Petersen responded no.

Committee members voted to move the bill forward with a favorable recommendation to the full Senate.

Attending the morning session and voting favorably were Sens. Francis, Jackson, Barnes, Javan James, and Janelle Sarauw. They also voted favorably on three other measures:

–     a resolution to posthumously honor Lee “Lee Vee” Vanterpool, a native son, for contributions to the community as a media professional and mentor, and for his contribution of time and professional skills to numerous nonprofit organizations;

–    a resolution honoring the Rising Stars Steel Orchestra for its musical contributions and its dedication to youth;

–    an act establishing Virgin Islands Flag Day.

Absent from the morning session were committee members Sens. Stephen Payne and Kenneth Gittens.