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Commissioners remain undecided on whether to transfer Probate Court

Budget Committee members have yet to make a final decision on the transfer of Probate Court functions from Chancery to Circuit Court, but there was plenty of opposition to the idea expressed during a Jan. 19 committee meeting.
“It greatly concerns me,” said Chancellor Richard Johnson, who voiced his disagreement with any change to the current structure.
Probate Court was moved from the County Clerk’s office to Chancery Court under the Clerk and Master’s oversight in 2005. During the following five-year period, estimated personnel costs for Probate Court increased from $98,920 to $185,407.
Washington County is currently studying the efficiencies and potential cost-savings of consolidating Probate Court with another existing court.
“When we took probate, we set up a separate office that is dedicated 100 percent to estates,” Johnson said, adding that thousands of cases were found that had been filed but never addressed.
Johnson defended his appointment of Brenda Sneyd as clerk and master, saying she had experience in probate. He also listed several efficiencies he believes are important in the current structure.
“(Lawyers) choose her because she is efficient and gets good results,” he said. “My take is that there are commissioners who don’t like that she made $36,000 selling real estate, but you have been misinformed.”
When Sneyd is chosen by the lawyers, she acts outside of her duties as clerk and master and takes on the role of special commissioner. By law, she receives 5 percent commission for every property she sells.
However, a number of sources are available to handle the sale of estate property, according to Johnson.
“Every time a property is sold does not mean she sold it,” he said. “That is positively, unequivocally wrong.”
Johnson said lawyers designate the representative to sell the property, and the clerk and master is chosen more than 50 percent of the time to avoid fees charged by realtors and auction houses.
“She took an auction course online and has experience as a real estate agent,” Johnson said. “Lawyers choose her more often than not because she does a good job; and as a result of her hard work, she is compensated.”
The second efficiency is the clerk and master’s ability to sign orders, Johnson said.
“One of the most brilliant acts the legislature came up with is to let the clerk and master have the authority to sign pro-forma orders in Probate Court,” Johnson said. “She doesn’t have to find me, we don’t have to have a hearing, and this saves time. The lawyers are tickled to death with the way probate is being run today because they can get things done.”
Johnson presented resolutions from the Carter County, Unicoi County and Johnson City bar associations requesting no changes be made to Probate Court.
“I beg you to dismiss this,” he said.
Experience in estate disputes is another benefit to keeping probate under Chancery Court, Johnson said.
“There is more stealing among families in Probate Court than in bank robberies,” he said.
According to Johnson, it is not an exaggeration to say that millions have been recovered from embezzlement and fraud since Chancery Court took over the probate responsibilities.
“We are the ones with the experience and knowledge to recognize the red flags,” he said.
Probate Court has three full-time employees and one that rotates with Chancery Court.
“I police it,” Sneyd said. “I’m there all the time, and whoever has a problem comes to me and I deal with it.”
Sneyd also said she takes a lot more time than any judge would have to read the wills presented for probate.
“Chancery has probate jurisdiction across the state, and we would stick out like a sore thumb if we changed,” Johnson said.
Johnson also warned commissioners about taking any action based on the fact that Sneyd has filed a lawsuit against the county for a 10 percent pay increase to match that of her counterpart in Circuit Court.
“If you threaten to take Probate Court away because she has a lawsuit against the county for thousands, be careful, because that is considered retaliation and that dog won’t hunt,” he said.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge asked if Sneyd has liability insurance that covers her when she operates outside of her position as clerk and master.
“Absolutely,” Sneyd said, adding she has two attorneys that review all her work.
When Eldridge inquired whether the county is covered in the event there is a liability issue, Johnson said the county could be sued, but there is no way it could be held liable because a special commissioner is not an employee of the county.
A formal opinion is called for, Eldridge said, adding that this is not a black-and-white issue.
“My role and responsibility is to ensure the county is not exposed in any way, and I need an answer,” he said.
County Attorney John Rambo said he will pose the question to the state attorney general’s office.
Eldridge referred to a report from the county’s independent auditor that shows Chancery Court as the only one losing money.
“My question is, how do we close the gap?” Eldridge asked. “We expect fee offices to pay their own way and this is the only fee office not doing it.”
Sneyd argued probate is not a fee office.
“We are a people’s court, and many of the people can’t pay,” she said.
Still, the fees and expenditures in Probate Court are going the wrong way, Eldridge said.
“Fees are going down and expenses are going up, and this must be addressed in this budget cycle,” he said. “The more I dig into it, the more concerned I am there are issues we need to address. Chancery Court is the only one under water.”
Johnson said he felt a sense of relief to know Sneyd’s fees as a special commissioner had nothing to do with the study of the court’s efficiency.
Commissioner Pat Wolfe then asked if all of Sneyd’s work as a special commissioner is done outside of county office hours.
“If a lawyer or a family comes into the office, she can’t say, ‘I’ll call you tonight,’ but the bulk of the work is done on her own time,” Johnson answered.
Commissioner Joe Grandy made a motion to table the discussion until more financial information is received. Mitch Meredith seconded the motion.