Sonoma County’s first dedicated probate court hears cases over trusts, estates, other end-of-life matters
Sonoma County, for the first time, has a dedicated probate court division to resolve conflicts over wills, trusts, estates, conservatorships, guardianships and other end-of-life financial matters.
Originally announced in a July 2021 news release, the Sonoma County Superior Court’s probate division began hearing cases in January.
The new court marks an important development for a county becoming progressively older and wealthier, supporters say.
“We’re really excited about it,” said local attorney Kristen Ingersoll, who chairs the Sonoma County Bar Association’s Trust and Estate Section. “We’ve been asking and pushing and begging for years wanting more resources because our clients — the public— need more resources to have their matters heard that much sooner and have them resolved that much sooner.”
Before the new year, the court’s probate department had a hybrid model, with probate matters split up among judges handling other civil cases.
“Over the years, we’ve had different judges handling different pieces of the probate pie, which is problematic because there is no consistency,” said Judge Larry Ornell, who now serves as the court’s dedicated probate judicial officer.
Judges whose calendars were dominated by other trials and who did not have a specialization in probate law were taking turns dealing with complicated and highly technical disputes over claims.
Now, one judge with a team of probate-specific staff will work full-time on the administering of Sonoma County residents’ wills and estates after they die.
“Because all I do is probate, I don’t have to fill my brain with other areas of law,” Ornell explained.
The dedicated probate court, held in Dept. 23 in the Civil and Family Law Courthouse, is an answer to a growing need in Sonoma County that “has been a long-time coming,” according to court officials.
"We can no longer manage the caseload with hybrid staffing and hybrid resource allocation. The filings are increasing, and we must address the demand. We will now have a department focused on probate, trust and conservatorship matters,” said presiding judge Brad DeMeo in the court’s original news release.
Local demographic changes have contributed to this increased demand, according to Ornell, as the North Coast increasingly attracts seniors hoping to retire here.
“And, hand-in-hand, to come and die at,” Ornell added.
Alongside this flow of retirees is an influx of wealth to Sonoma County, and therefore bigger and more frequent conflicts over the distribution of that wealth.
“The volume of people who need judicial relief is growing, growing, growing,” Ingersoll said.
This issue has become particularly urgent during the pandemic, with COVID-19 pushing Sonoma County residents to prepare for the inevitable. Ornell estimated that over the last two years, the county court’s probate caseload has increased around 35%.
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @vv1lder.
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