Rhode Island Court Records
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How Does the Rhode Island Probate Court Work?
Established by RIGL 8–9, Rhode Island Probate Courts handle all probate cases in the state. Each Rhode Island Probate Court handles cases only within its territorial jurisdiction. Rhode Island Probate Courts exercise jurisdiction over the following types of cases, according to Section 8–9–9 of the state’s general laws:
- Probate of wills
- Adult limited guardianships
- Administration of estates
- Minor guardianships
- Adoption of adults
- Authorization to sell or mortgage-related property at a private or public sale
Probate Courts also hear matters involving certain trusts, ruling on the related trustees involved. These matters may include removing or replacing the trustee of a trust established under a will or the termination of a trust. Furthermore, Probate Courts may hear cases on name changes of adults that have received convictions for a felony or misdemeanor.
Probate Courts have concurrent jurisdiction over these cases with the Rhode Island Superior Court. Probate Courts may also hear Superior Court cases that are related to probate matters.
Probate describes the legal and court-administered procedures which take place in the handling of a deceased person’s affairs. Probate procedures may be initiated over a deceased person’s property if there are no clear recipients. Generally, these procedures handle property not passed down by the deceased through one of the following:
- Right of survivorship
- A trust established before the person’s death
- Life insurance payable to a named beneficiary
Although the jurisdiction of a Probate Court is specific, the courts sometimes operate as Municipal Courts. Note that procedures employed by Probate Courts may differ between towns and cities. However, the differences are usually slight.
Generally, Rhode Island Probate Courts are necessary for the following reasons:
- To collect, guard, and preserve a deceased person’s property and assets
- To ensure that the estate promptly and properly pays all of the deceased’s taxes, debts, and claims
- To establish the rightful recipient of the deceased’s property and assets and distribute to these persons accordingly
If the deceased created a will before death, the property may be distributed as the will provides. If the person dies intestate, where there is no will, the Probate Court may decide the proper distribution of the deceased’s assets and property. However, note that Rhode Island Probate Courts may satisfy all taxes, claims, and debts, before distributing the deceased’s assets and property.
The probate judge of each Probate Court must satisfy the following qualifications, as provided by Section 8–9–2.1:
- Must be admitted to practice law before the Rhode Island Supreme Court
- Must have been engaged in the active practice of law in the sate
Note that regardless of the above qualifications, the law allows each town or city to add additional qualifications for the probate judges in each jurisdiction. However, these additions may be subject to one or more ordinances in towns or cities.
In some Rhode Island towns, the town council may regularly sit as the Probate Court. In those towns, the town council has the authority to appoint a Probate Court judge. This provision must be made available to any party who requests a probate judge’s presence to hear and determine a probate matter. In some cases, the town council is also responsible for filling any vacancy in the person’s office due to the appointment.
In towns where the above applies, the town council may appoint a judge annually. However, the appointee shall not sit on any case where the person is interested in the matter, or where the person is a party to the case. Note that the appointee must be a member of the Rhode Island bar.
Whenever the probate judge is unavailable to hear a case for any reason, the town or city council must hear probate cases as if there is no probate judge.
Section 8–9–5 provides specific actions to be taken if a probate judge is not available to hear a case. In Warren town, the town solicitor is authorized to hear cases where the Warren Probate Court judge is unavailable. Note that the court records must describe the exact reason the probate judge is unavailable or disqualified. This may be because of a direct interest in the case, the council’s inability to appoint a judge, or other acceptable reasons.
For the City of Newport, and Cumberland or Smithfield towns, the law requires the Municipal Court judge to handle the case in the probate judge’s absence. If the Municipal Court judge is unavailable, the responsibility falls to the city or town solicitor in either case. The same applies to Hopkinton or West Greenwich towns where one or more deputy probate judges elected by the town council must handle the case. Note that for all replacements, court records must specify the reason why a probate judge is not available to hear the case.
According to Section 33–23–1, persons dissatisfied with Probate Court decisions are allowed to appeal to the Superior Court of the county where the Probate Court is located. The aggrieved party must file a claim of appeal to the Superior Court, in the Probate Court’s clerk’s office. The appellant must also request a certified copy of the claim of appeal after paying the expected filing fees to the clerk. Within 30 days of the Probate Court’s decision, the appellant must file the certified copy of the appeal claim at the Superior Court with jurisdiction over the case. An appeal shall be heard by a trial de novo in the Superior Court.
Persons interested in Probate Court records may visit the court location for more information. Interested persons may also send a written request to the court, with details of the records sought. Requestors who need to contact or visit Rhode Island Probate Courts may use the following information: