Allan Woodcock has been the judge for the Penobscot County Probate Court for 47 years. He is seeking another four-year term. At the age of 89, he has been a judge of probate longer than any other judge in Maine.
The Penobscot County Probate Court has been reversed on appeal more than any other Probate Court in the state. Since 2004, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has overturned that Probate Court’s decisions on appeal 40 percent of the time. To put that statistic in perspective, nine of our 16 county Probate Courts have not had a single decision overturned in that same time frame.
We cannot forget that real families are behind these statistics. Here is what happened in one of the cases that was vacated:
A young boy’s father died, leaving the child with a life insurance payment and a monthly Social Security benefit. Shortly thereafter, the Probate Court appointed the boy’s mother to look after that money until he reached adulthood. She was allowed to spend some of that money on her son’s behalf and for his benefit, but had to get prior written approval from the court before doing so.
The mother could not afford to bury the father. She asked Judge Woodcock for his approval to allow her to spend some of that money on the father’s burial.
Without a hearing, without explanation and without requesting evidence of any kind, Judge Woodcock said “no.” Just “no.”
The father had been dead nearly 15 months before the Supreme Judicial Court overturned this decision and ordered the judge to allow the mother an opportunity to present her case, during which time the boy’s father apparently remained in a local cemetery vault awaiting burial. The mother apparently could not afford to bury the father, while the young son could, but was not allowed to. Those of you who have lost a loved one know how important it is to a family’s well being to bury them so the process of moving on can begin.
Put yourself in this family’s place.
Most people know very little about what our Probate Court does or why it is so important that they make a thoughtful and well-informed choice when deciding whom to elect. Too often, the choice is made based on name recognition. This example, however, shows just how important a thoughtful choice is.
The Probate Court makes decisions in matters involving wills, estates, guardianships, conservatorships, adoptions and name changes. Many families find themselves before the Probate Court at what is the most emotionally difficult time in their lives. A judge deciding these cases needs to understand family dynamics, as well as the effect of physical and mental disabilities, drug abuse, neglect and a whole host of other issues in addition to the law, in order to make the right decision.
As a lawyer in Penobscot County, I have represented children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and those with mental illness and physical disabilities, both in cases before the Probate Court and related family matters in other courts. I also recently went through guardianship proceedings — in a different Probate Court — with my own grandmother, who developed dementia and could no longer remember to take her schizophrenia medications, which resulted in a quick downward spiral. It was a painful time for my family. I do not know what we would have done to keep my grandmother safe and well cared for had the judge made the wrong decision.
On Nov. 2, you get to decide who presides over the Probate Court here in Penobscot County. I urge you to vote and to make the right choice for our families.
Mandi Odier-Fink is a lawyer in private practice in Bangor. She is a candidate for Penobscot County judge of probate.