If you make your living in and around our probate courts you’ll find the FY 2020-21 Probate Court Statistical Reference Guide interesting reading.
Probate court filings increased state-wide by approximately 50% over the last 10 years, which is more than twice Florida’s general population growth rate for this same time period. I don’t know what’s driving this spike, but I suspect it has something to do with the disproportionate growth in Florida’s senior population.
By the way, it may come as a surprise to learn that only about half of the workload of our probate courts is actually dedicated to “probate” proceedings, and “guardianship” and “trust” matters — while looming large in most practitioner conferences and publications — represent a tiny slice of the number of cases filed.
How busy are our probate judges?
This chart is my creation. The goal is to get a sense of how busy our probate judges are by taking the “cases filed” data reported in the FY 2020-21 Probate Court Statistical Reference Guide for three of Florida’s largest circuits/counties — (Miami-Dade (11th Cir), Broward (17th Cir), and Palm Beach (15th Cir) — and dividing those figures by the total number of dedicated probate judges for each of these circuits as reported in the FY 2020-21 Overall Statistics page.
|Type of Case||Miami-Dade (11th Cir)||Broward (17th Cir)||Palm Beach (15th Cir)|
|Other Social Cases||2,173||365||255|
|Total FY 2020-21||13,652||12,264||9,788|
So what’s it all mean?
In Miami-Dade – on average – each probate judge took on 3,501 new cases in FY 2020-21, while in Broward the average was significantly higher at 4,088/judge, and in Palm Beach it was the lowest at 3,263/judge. Keep in mind these figures don’t take into account each probate judge’s existing case load or other administrative duties.
These caseload figures may be appropriate for uncontested proceedings, but when it comes to that small % of contested estate matters that are litigated these 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 public court system. One important aspect of that kind of planning should be opting out of the public dispute-resolution system (our courts) and into a private dispute-resolution mechanism (arbitration) whenever possible. And how do you do that? Include mandatory arbitration clauses in all of your wills and trusts. These clauses are enforceable by statute in Florida. I’m a big fan of this approach (see here, here, here, here).
- We aren’t doing our jobs as litigators if we don’t anticipate — and plan accordingly for — the “cold judge” factor; which needs to be weighed heavily every time you ask a court system designed to handle uncontested proceedings on a mass-production basis to adjudicate a complex dispute or basically rule on any technically demanding issue that can’t be disposed of in the few minutes allotted to the average court hearing.