The pair were presented with a series of questions submitted anonymously by the audience, many geared more toward the processes before probate to include what to provide citizens before death and reverse mortgages.
“Don’t get me started on reverse mortgages,” Phipps said, drawing laughter from the audience. “It is not the register’s place to educate the public on reverse mortgages. The register handles the administration of the estate after the death. However, reverse mortgages can create an enormous problem in estates.”
Phipps said families believe they can keep the house but may not be able to, and urged people to look carefully before acquiring a reverse mortgage.
“I am a strong advocate for public education and I think the real solution to it is to educate the public before the estate is [open] and before the reverse mortgage wreaks havoc on the estate,” said Lynch, whose area of practice is estates, trusts and probate law.
Lynch agreed it is not the register of wills’ job, but said he routinely teaches the public on the traditional pitfalls of estate planning and that a better educated public would avoid that in the estate process.
“I am excited about the vision I have for the register of the wills office. I am a very strong proponent of electronic administration of estates,” Lynch said in response to a ques- tion on improving the probate process.
The estate attorney said he is not a proponent of filing wills electronically, but is in favor of automating the state administration process, much like the circuit court system.
“It’s been shown to eliminate up to 90 percent of paper storage,” Lynch said, noting that electronic filing increases data security.
Phipps said her office is electronic and has records and is working to advance that along. She said “a will is a very precious document” and that state law does not allow wills to be digitized, but that everything is electronic in their system.
Four of the five candidates for judge of the orphans’ court were on hand at the forum to demonstrate why they should be elected, or in the case of Leslie Downs (R), Ted LeBlanc (R) and Thomas Pelagatti (D), re-elected to one of the three posts. Much of their time was spent explaining what they do.
“What we are are the judges. If you go to court for something you don’t come in and ask judges what you are going to experience,” Downs said, in response to a question on what the judges will do to educate the public.
LeBlanc, a Prince Frederick-based attorney, said if people do not understand how things work in the orphans’ court they, should seek counsel.
“We hear contested cases and we help administer the estates,” LeBlanc said, explaining the process. “Ms. Phipps’ office will process estates and they do an accounting. That accounting comes to us. We will review it and we then sign an order or we don’t sign an order.”
LeBlanc, who has been on the court for four years, said they also approve the fees for attorneys and personal representatives and hear contested cases.
Pelagatti, who has been a judge for 12 years, said the orphans’ court “is a court of limited jurisdiction” set by state probate laws. He said the title is very misleading because they do not deal with orphans. Downs said it is leftover English law.
Pelagatti, who is also a lawyer, said he has gone out with Phipps to educate various groups on the role and responsibility of both the register and the judges.
“We all stress that you should either have a will, write a trust [or] estate planning, etc. It’s so much easier down the line,” Pelagatti said.
In response to the same question, orphans’ court hopeful Derek Sabedra (R) said “as a teacher the best way to learn is to go out there and actually do it” and educate the community about the positions, suggesting earlier achieving it through “fact finding and some workshops.”
Democrat and Prince Frederick based attorney Tammy Fowler was not at the forum due to a schedule conflict.
All of the incumbents stressed the importance of a good working relationship with the register of the wills in response to a question on the entities working together to the benefit of the community.
“Everyone here should really thank their lucky stars. Calvert County has one of the best register of wills [and] judges of orphans’ court working together than any other counties,” Downs said, noting discord in other counties causing a backlog in cases.
“The register’s office is one hard-working machine,” Downs added.
LeBlanc concurred they have a cordial relationship and that “the register does the bulk of the work” Monday through Friday, while the court sits one day a week. Pelagatti said they have an “excellent working relationship” with the register of wills, but said they do not always agree on issues.
“We have to work in tandem. We have to be … symbiotic,” Sabedra said, drawing a correlation between Phipps and contact teacher in the school system.
None of the candidates thought there were needed policy changes that will benefit the public. However, Pelagatti advocated for requiring orphans’ court judges to be lawyers like in other counties due to “complexity of issues,” suggesting that people like Downs, who is not a lawyer, should be grandfathered in.
“This is not a training ground. You can’t just throw a layperson out here to train anymore. You have to have some initiative and know what’s going on,” Pelagatti said.
“I am excited about the vision I have for the register of the wills office. I am a very strong proponent of electronic administration of estates,” said Republican candidate and Annapolis-based attorney Mark Lynch at the Calvert County League of Women Voters forum in Prince Frederick on Oct. 4. Democrat incumbent Register of Wills Margaret Phipps listens.