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County votes to introduce bill to add $1.2 million probate court

Friday, January 27, 2023 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously voted to approve a preliminary step in the creation of a new probate court, which would take the total number up to two, in line with other large counties in Texas. When the item was brought up in court two weeks ago, it raised questions of affordability and shared costs with the state.

In order for the probate court to be finalized, legislation will first need to go through the Texas Legislature and be* signed by Governor Greg Abbott. Tuesday’s vote authorized the Intergovernmental Relations Office to file that legislation.

The county expects the operational cost will be approximately $1.2 million annually, with the state contributing just $84,000 – the equivalent of 65 percent of the judge’s salary. The money will go toward court, clerk and constable services, according to Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman.

“The state does pay some, but the vast majority of this expense is going to fall on the county since it’s a county function,” said Travis Gatlin with the Planning and Budget Office.

Probate courts oversee the process of gathering assets of the deceased, as well as will execution and estate administration.

“Currently, Travis County is the only county of the ‘Big Five’ that has a single probate court. As you can imagine, with a county of our size that puts an enormous strain on our already limited court system,” said Julie Wheeler, intergovernmental relations officer.

Wheeler told commissioners that if they didn’t vote for the item now, because it “requires legislative action,” the next chance to add a court would be in 2025.

“It is important to make sure that we are serving our citizens well in probably one of the most disquieting times that a family might experience,” Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez pointed out that one upside of the request is that the space for a court already exists. “The good thing about this is that normally when we get a request for another court, it’s like, do we have the space?” she said. “In this case, the courthouse is already there. There’s enough space, so we don’t have to deal with that.”

Gómez said probate courts are a county responsibility, and she took exception to describing them as dealing with “dead people’s assets.”

“I find that kind of offensive,” she said. “It’s just trying to make sure that the live folks, you know, get a real good distribution of their relatives’ assets. I think that’s a more respectful way to put it.”

Commissioner Ann Howard expressed minor concern at the $1.2 million price tag.

Gatlin said that the cost was comparable to other courts of similar size.

“Typically it’s a million-plus, and sometimes it can be more, depending on indigent defense costs,” Gatlin said. “This is probably a little bit less because other courts could have clerks plus prosecutors, where this will only have probate court staff and county clerk staff.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to clarify the process that would occur at the legislature to create the court.

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