Probate race features experienced choices

Oct. 13, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

HAMPDEN COUNTY – With many of the local political contests settled last month with the primary election, of the most prominent because it is for the entire county to decide, is the register of probate.

Two veterans of the office are vying for the position: Rosemary Saccomani and Lori Landers-Carvalho.

Both women have years of experience in the office and are running because current Register Suzanne T. Seguin is retiring.

Reminder Publishing asked each candidate the same five questions. Their answers are below.

The average person may not be familiar with what the register of probate does. Could you describe the job?

Rosemary Saccomani: The Probate & Family Court deals with subject matters relative to divorce, child support, child custody, estates (wills), probate (petitions to partition), equity complaints, guardianship of minors, guardianship/conservatorship of incapacitated adults, abuse prevention order, adoption and name change.  The register is the official keeper of all the records and serves all 23 cities and towns in Hampden County.  The register is also responsible for the administrative day to day operations of the Probate Court.  The register must ensure the integrity and collection of all court filings, petitions, complaints and pleadings.  These documents are essential to the resolution of the issues before the Probate Court. Their safe keeping is another critical component of the office. The register is also responsible for approximately 35 staff who provide customer service to members of the public that utilize the probate office.

As the leader of the register of probate, an effective register should work with judges, probation and other court personnel to assist in a speedy resolution of all matters before the court.  The Probate Office also partners with the Sheriff’s Department, Police Department, Department of Revenue, Developmental Services, Department of Children and Families along with several other agencies.

These are unprecedented times resulting from the COVID outbreak.  The register has the responsibility to confront these challenges and maintain the day to day operations of the registry while ensuring the safety of staff and the public who use the office.

The register must possess a profound knowledge of the subject matter, and the duties of the staff at the Probate Office.  The position required effective managerial competence to adjust to the changing technological processes and timely delivery of services during and after this pandemic.

Lori Landers-Carvalho: The register of probate is the administrator, manager, and supervisor of the Registry of Probate, which is the administrative arm of the Probate and Family Court. The types of cases heard in this court include divorce, custody, child support, children born to never-married parents, temporary restraining orders, adoptions, estate administration, guardianships of incapacitated persons and minors, change of name, and equity complaints. It is the responsibility of the register to maintain accurate, complete, and consistent records of all pleadings filed with the court and orders issued by the judges. The register works with the first justice and the chief probation officer of the Hampden Division to coordinate the work of the staff of each of these arms of the court.

The Hampden Division in particular has a large percentage of people who represent themselves in court. The register must provide excellent customer service to all court users and assure that they have access to justice. The registry partners with other agencies, such as the Hampden County Bar Association and Community Legal Aid, who provide Lawyer for the Day, Conciliation, and Limited Assistance Representation services.

The register is also the person who communicates with the Administrative Office of the Probate and Family Court in Boston to keep current with the protocols, administrative orders, standing orders, and advisories issued by the administrative office. She is responsible for the hiring, promotion, and evaluation of the work performance of the staff in the registry, which currently totals 31 people, not including several vacancies due to attrition and a current hiring freeze. The register also is a member of committees of the Probate and Family Court and Trial Court as needed to assist in the development of uniform policies and procedures among the 14 divisions of the Probate and Family Court.

Both candidates have experience working in Hampden Probate and Family Court. Could describe your history with it?

Rosemary Saccomani: I have 30 years of dedicated professional service in the Hampden County Registry of Probate. The last 18 years as deputy. I am proud of my service and have worked in or have a direct working knowledge of every position in the registry.

My history of employment in the office includes case coordinator, team leader, head administrative assistant, court sessions clerk, MUPC magistrate and 18 years as deputy.

Another one of my major responsibilities as deputy was to perform fiscal planning, including providing financial projections to prepare and implement the multi-million-dollar budget for the Probate Office with the former register, the late Thomas P. Moriarty Jr.

In addition to my responsibilities as deputy, I also have extensive experience working with the public, members of the Trial Court, judges and attorneys. I have provided them with my 30 years of knowledge and hands-on experience. 

In my 30 years I have seen and met with thousands of people, many of whom enter the office looking for help, at their most vulnerable times.  It gives me great satisfaction to be able to assist and provide answers to people who were seeking help.

I have trained and run countless workshops in areas of all subject matters pertaining to the Probate Court.  This training includes the use of the MASS COURTS automated system and electronic filings.  As part of the management team in the Probate Office, I have initiated, developed and implemented policies and procedures which have dramatically improved the delivery of services at the registry. I have shared my 30 years of knowledge and experience with employees, including training the current Register of Probate, Suzanne T. Seguin.

Lori Landers-Carvalho: After practicing law and representing parents and children in the Probate and Family Court and Juvenile Court for 14 years, I was hired by the Hampden Probate and Family Court as the family law facilitator (FLF). This is a unique position, in that it is the only position in the Probate and Family Court by description, besides judges, that requires the person who performs it to be a lawyer. I helped low-income, self-represented litigants (SRLs) by providing legal advice, education, and support but did not represent anyone in court. Judges sent litigants out from the courtroom for my assistance, other court staff referred customers to me, and many people came in specifically to seek my help. Staff also asked me many questions about the law and procedures so they could provide better information to the court users. I was able to mold and expand this position during the 14 years I served as FLF. I developed written materials explaining forms, procedures, and legal concepts, as well as developed pleadings for SRLs to use on their own. Even attorneys used these materials.

I have served on many committees addressing forms, guardianship of minors, access to justice, self-help materials, and limited assistance representation due to my knowledge and experience. I was appointed education officer to develop trainings to assist our staff in completing their annual continuing education requirement. I also was one of six deputy assistant registers for more than six years.

In 2018, I was hired as the first assistant register of probate to serve in this managerial position alongside the register. Since then I have been a magistrate under the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code, a commissioner to administer oaths, and responsible for assembling the record for cases under appeal, besides assisting with all the other duties of the register.

What do you see as challenges or issues that should be addressed in the way the business of the court is conducted?

Rosemary Saccomani: COVID has created serious challenges to the operation of the Probate & Family Court. But these challenges cannot be excuses for not providing quick, accurate services. These are some of the challenges.

Significant reduction of in-person staff and other essential court personnel, including judges. This reduction in staff has created an undue burden on existing staff, therefore, creating a significant backlog and the resolution of cases before the Probate Court.

Many of these backlog cases deal with sensitive issues as settling divorce, estates, child custody and adoptions. These backlogs can cause additional panic and heartbreak.

The benefit of having 30 years of direct working knowledge of the case processing, provides me with the necessary skills to work with limited staff. Cross training the employees is essential. Cross training will help ease and reduce the backlog of case processing and provide a more speedy resolution of probate business. We must also remember that each file represents a person who is seeking help.

The Trial Court has been pro-active in trying to address and balance the need for business to continue and for the safety of the public during this pandemic.

The continual need for staff training and workshops to keep up with the rapidly changing technological advances. We must in the Probate Office be willing to embrace the technological breakthroughs to better serve the public.

The Registry of Probate must adapt to the times. Access to the court is limited. If elected, I intend to establish a satellite office which will rotate throughout the 23 cities and towns of Hampden County making it easier for the public to utilize the services at the Registry of Probate.

Lori Landers-Carvalho: The major challenge faced by the Probate and Family Court today and historically is providing timely hearings to the parties in a case. This is primarily because of staffing issues – both the appointment of enough judges and enough support staff for all three arms of the court, i.e., judicial, probation, and registry. As register of probate in Hampden County, I will always advocate for the necessary personnel to meet the needs of our court. We are a busy urban court. While the Hampden Division strives to provide prompt and courteous service to all court users, sometimes contested cases are not heard quickly enough. Access to Justice means each case deserves adequate time to be heard. There are only so many hours the judges have available to hear cases. If we have more judges, more cases can be heard. However, without adequate support staff to schedule hearings, process paperwork, and provide customer service to parties and attorneys, orders cannot be sent out to the parties quickly.

Many strides have been made by the Trial Court, especially since the pandemic hit, to meet the needs of parties in the courts, including e-filing being available for some case types. Another is the virtual registry where registry staff provide one-on-one assistance to court users by Zoom hearing on electronic devices. I have advocated for, and will continue to advocate for, expanding the types of cases for which e-filing is available. I will continue to advocate for more staff to meet the needs of our court and to alleviate the stress on our staff who work so hard every day.

Are there still concerns with the building as there were a few years ago?

Rosemary Saccomani: Yes, there are still concerns with the safety and air quality. We must put the safety of our employees and the public first. And on that issue, there can be no compromise.

Although some improvements have been made, one most recently being the air ventilation system, there remains a concern as to the safety of the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse and its long-term health effect on both the public and the staff.

I personally knew the late, Judge Robert Kumor and most recently the untimely passing of Judge William Boyle. Both of whom shared the same office and succumbed to the same disease. (ALS).

If elected, I will continue to communicate with health experts and our state legislative delegation regarding the future of the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse.

Lori Landers-Carvalho: The health and safety of everyone working in and visiting the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse is high on my priority list. I work in the building and I am physically present as much as, if not more than, most personnel, and my own health is important to me, so I want to ensure the building is as safe as possible. 

It is important to understand that the register of probate has no decision-making powers about such things as the maintenance and housing of our courts. Our Trial Court leaders have hired outside agencies to test air quality and investigate the condition of the structure of the buildings. We must rely on those leaders to inform us along the way and make the right decisions. However, as the register of probate, I will seek to replace my predecessor on the local committee formed to voice the concerns of personnel regarding the issue of the health of the building and take an active role in questioning and analyzing the decisions being made by the Trial Court administrators.

The facilities department has made improvements to the ventilation system and its cleaning practices as recommended by the outside agencies. Some people will always be concerned about the building. If the Trial Court leaders decide to provide us with a new home, it will likely be years before we are in it.

What do you believe is your strongest reason for voters to support you?

Rosemary Saccomani: My 30 years of distinguished, dedicated and professional experience, the last 18 years as deputy separate me from my opponent. I am uniquely qualified to serve as register of probate.  I have worked at, or have a direct working knowledge of every position in the registry.

I have performed as a case coordinator/team leader, head administrative assistant, and court sessions clerk.  Each time, outperforming my duties and responsibilities.  My commitment, knowledge, and work ethic were recognized by the register and I was promoted to deputy where I have served for the last 18 years. I was also appointed by the First Justice, as MUPC Magistrate.  In addition, I am a certified mediator in family law issues and have taught family law matters at Westfield State University.

I have never run for elective office before, and the work of the Probate Office must never be political.  It is not a Democratic office or a Republican office, it is the people’s office. If elected my office policy will be straightforward, everyone will be treated equally with dignity and respect

I understand the needs of the public when seeking the Probate Court for assistance. I will serve with integrity; I will lead with confidence; I will manage with competence and I will be ready to start on day one.  

I know the job. I love the work and I humbly as for your vote on Nov. 3.

Lori Landers-Carvalho: The biggest reason for voters to support me is my proven experience to lead the Registry of Probate. I am the assistant register of probate currently and the only candidate working in this court. I have the education, knowledge, and leadership skills necessary to succeed as the register.

I have been an attorney for 30 years and have been working in the registry for 16 years. I have a strong work ethic and an excellent attendance record. The citizens of Hampden County can be assured that I am there in the office overseeing the day-to-day operations of the registry. I have been and will continue to be accountable to them to make sure the office runs as efficiently as possible and provides them with the best customer service possible.

Training of our staff is a priority, and I lead by example by attending legal seminars pertinent to the cases in our court sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Hampden County Bar Association, and Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, as well as trainings provided by the Trial Court Judicial Institute. It is important for a leader to constantly grow and evolve personally and professionally and not to be complacent with reaching a goal. New goals must be set and pursued. The procedures and policies of the Trial Court evolve, and the Register of Probate must be adaptable and willing to take on new challenges, especially now.

In contrast, my opponent retired two years ago at age 58 instead of applying for the assistant register position to gain the experience necessary to run the office. She retired after the job posted and I began as the assistant register. Although my opponent worked in the court longer than I, she never advanced beyond a mid-level, co-supervisory clerical position. I am a manager.

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