Martin Collins and Michelle Casillas, the Staff Attorneys of Bexar County Probate Courts 1 and 2, have seen changes in the cases styles and case management of the Probate Court dockets since COVID-19 first began. Below is a short Q&A of their experiences.
Q. How long have you been working with the Probate Court?
Martin: 16 years.
Michelle: Since January 1, 2019 when Judge Vasquez was sworn into office as the judge of Bexar County Probate Court No. 2
Q. What ways did COVID directly impact the probate court, and when did the effect begin?
Martin: It completely did away with our in person uncontested probate docket and all other in-person hearings (i.e. heirships, dependent/independent administrations/guardianships). It pretty much started when the directive came from the state to discontinue in-person hearings. We went from hearings with 35-40 cases on our uncontested in-person probate docket to 0. It also destroyed our jury trial calendar when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a 2 or 3 month delay.
Michelle: Our court saw an increase in small estate affidavits and emergency matters.
Q. What ways did COVID indirectly impact the probate court, and when did the effect begin?
Martin: I think everyone was pretty much in the same boat when it came to making the transition from an in-person to a virtual format. We didn’t have the training in how to operate virtuall,y and it took the county a little while to get the necessary technology hardware in place to conduct the hearings, and then working out the bugs as we went.
Michelle: Shortly after the first shut downs throughout the State we began to experience a larger volume of inquires both from attorneys and the public regarding probate matters. We already experience a large number of calls and emails, so it was definitely an impactful increase.
Q. Is there an area or aspect that has been impacted the most?
Martin: Jury trials have been the most impacted. I stopped counting the number of settings we have had to drop indefinitely. While the in-person hearings on uncontested matters were equally hard hit, we have been able to find ways to make those hearings happen that hasn’t been possible with jury trials.
Michelle: When you think about the areas of law that probate courts have jurisdiction over, it is no surprise that our workload increased during this time and will likely continue to do so. Other statutory probate courts in Texas have seen the same increase during this time.
Q. What role has technology played in serving individuals remotely?
Martin: It has made the probate hearings and guardianship hearings more accessible to our elderly and infirm, as long as they and their attorneys have the ability to appear remotely and use the technology.
Michelle: Our court prepared in early March for the likelihood that we would be required to hold hearings via remote services or potentially shut down for some time. However, our court never shut down, and this early preparation helped us get a jump-start. During this time, we continued to hold regular dockets without interruption. In addition, technology has been helpful to the public by allowing individuals to appear in court from the comfort of their home or their attorneys’ offices. Many of the cases in our court involve elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities, so it has been helpful in providing them access during this time.
Q. What are some of the downfalls of working remotely that you have overcome?
Martin: Getting the technology in place that was necessary to make it work more effectively. Our court really never closed, and I was still going in to the office on an every other day basis last spring and homeschooling my 5 year old with my wife on the days that I was working from home. Lets just say that he was quite happy to return to in person school in August. Since August of this year I have been in the office 5 days a week.
Michelle: Technology can breakdown sometimes or be a barrier to those without access. However, we have worked with individuals and provided alternatives so that they can appear in court. We set up an alternative remote station in our court for individuals that needed to appear for their hearing that adheres to the proper operating guidelines currently in effect. We also offer assistance to attorneys and the public on how to use Zoom and how to get set up for their hearings. We are happy to practice with you beforehand so you are ready on the day of your hearing. We also want to keep our staff safe. If something happens to one of us, it really affects our day-to-day operations. We have been able to stay open to the public, accessible both in-person and remotely, and maintained a safe environment for our staff and the public.
Q. Are there changes you have made to the process because of the pandemic that you plan to keep even after restrictions have are no longer in place?
Martin: It depends a lot on what we are allowed to still do remotely by the State. It would be nice to keep the capability and ability to conduct virtual hearings but still have the ability to have in person proceedings
Michelle: We would like to see remote hearings become an option as long as we can continue to do it in a way that complies with the Open Courts Act. We are working with the County to make this a legislative priority.
Q. What information regarding the process do you think would be beneficial to attorneys or do you wish more attorneys knew?
Martin: The courts differ a bit on how we schedule and handle hearings. I would suggest that the attorneys who don’t practice a lot in our courts visit our websites for information on what the processes are for probate and guardianship and if they have any questions after that, they are certainly free to contact either me or our court coordinator by phone or email with any questions.
Michelle: Our process has not changed much other than to require hearings via remote services. We provided guidelines and information in early March and updated them as required by the various government entities. There is a lot of great information on our website and we continue to update it. We stream all our hearings on YouTube pursuant to the Office of Court Administration guidelines so it is a great way to stop in and learn about the court’s procedures. In addition, you can always call our court for assistance.
Q. In what ways can the legal community get involved and/or assist the probate court in the short term?
Martin: Volunteer your time/expertise with the local bar to assist people in the community with probate/guardianship issues that need assistance but can’t afford to pay going rate attorney fees. Be more aware/involved with your elderly neighbors, friends and church members and learn how to recognize signs of financial exploitation and/or physical neglect and harm and who and how to report it. With the pandemic, we have seen an upsurge in financial exploitation but by the time it gets to us a lot of the time the damage has been done.
Michelle: Review our temporary guidelines, become familiar with the court procedure, and think about accepting some pro bono probate cases. Reach out to SALSA about how you can become involved.
Q. In what ways can the legal community change to assist the court in the long term?
Martin: Be an advocate for responsible end of life planning (wills, powers of attorney, medical directives).
Michelle: The probate courts have been in need of additional staff for many years. When compared to other counties of similar size we have significantly less staff and still serve similar populations. With increased staff, we can better serve the public. It will also help the courts keep up with the increased oversight required in individual cases due to continually enacted legislation. The legal community can assist by contacting their county commissioner about this.