Candidates explain probate judging

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ST. ALBANS — Probate judge candidates Vaughn Comeau and Bob Farrar have something in common: voters don’t seem to understand what exactly they’re running for. What, exactly, does a probate judge do?

The Messenger asked both candidates precisely that question. Their explanations were nearly identical.

While the criminal court deals in criminal cases, and the civil court in civil disputes, the probate court deals with adoptions, name changes and birth certificates, guardianships for adults and children. And with less common issues, such as the disposition of remains — that is, moving a body.

But the majority of probate court cases concern the administration of wills and estates.

In estate cases, a probate judge oversees the fulfillment of debts, the distribution of assets — even the payment of funeral bills, according to Comeau.

Farrar said a probate judge essentially determines “who gets what” in estate cases, based either on a decedent’s will or, in cases without a will, state law.

Both Comeau and Farrar were quick to list adoptions among the probate judge’s role.

Farrar said adoptions can be a “difficult and sensitive issue,” sometimes involving the Vermont Dept. of Children and Families, while Comeau stressed their importance with a personal note: that he experienced a probate adoption case from the opposite side in adopting his daughter, Amelia.

Comeau said he is professionally familiar with the probate court as a private attorney. In that capacity, Comeau said, he has dealt with over 200 probate cases in the last several years, not only in Franklin County, but also in Grand Isle, Orleans, Lamoille, Rutland and Windham counties.

It’s a “large part of my practice,” he said. His office is in the Village of Enosburg Falls.

Farrar stressed his “lots of trial experience in courts across Vermont,” including jury trials in the Franklin County court’s family and civil divisions and in Vermont’s federal district court. Farrar said he has 15-20 years of local trial experience. His office is in the City of St. Albans.

Here is where their candidacies differ. If elected, Comeau plans to continue his private practice and work as a part-time probate judge. Farrar plans to give up his private practice and work as a full-time probate judge.

Each is firm in his assessment of whether the position should be part- or full-time.

Farrar said Franklin County’s probate caseload is increasing with its population. He said working as a full-time probate judge precludes him from conflicts of interest, and noted each of Franklin County’s most recent probate judges worked full-time.

Comeau, on the other hand, said the need for legal services in northern Vermont necessitates he continue his private practice, and noted Vermont law only stipulates that Chittenden County retain full-time probate judges, due to its population and the corresponding caseload. In contrast, Franklin County has 40 percent of Chittenden County’s caseload, Comeau said.

Both are running as Democratic candidates, but both strongly emphasized that the probate judge is not a partisan position.

Comeau said “politics have little to do with it, especially today’s politics.”

Both Farrar and Comeau acknowledged that either could wind up with the Republican Party’s nomination through write-ins on the Republican ballot, and both said they encouraged their Republican friends to write them in.

Farrar moved to Vermont with his wife after graduating law school. Comeau grew up in Swanton.

Each stressed their devotion to their community.

Comeau noted his local roots, and said he was proud to offer legal services in the place where he grew up.

Farrar noted his community involvement, coaching local Little League and serving on the Northwestern Medical Center’s board of directors.

Both agreed on the probate court’s importance.

Farrar said it is “the people’s court.”

Comeau, on the other hand, said, “I like to say everybody comes across probate court in their life or death.”

The primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 14. Early and absentee ballots are already available. Contact your town or city clerk for more information.