When the merger of probate courts in North Stonington, Stonington, Groton and Ledyard into the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Probate District was first announced, some people viewed it with a bit of trepidation.
People were worried about having to possibly travel out of town to take care of probate matters and losing perhaps a bit of local control.
Change is not always easy, but in this case the merger has been worth the effort. And the merger of the courts is really nothing new. It is a great example of history repeating itself.
If you delve into the past, you would learn that the Stonington Probate District was constituted in October 1766, from the New London Probate District. It also served, oddly enough, the following municipalities at various times: Groton, October 1766 to May 24, 1839; Ledyard, May 1836 to June 5, 1837; and North Stonington, May 1807 to June 3, 1835.
After each town pulled away from the Stonington Probate District, it formed its own.
Now it seems, the towns have been joined once again.
Stonington does have a storied past. It was settled in 1649 and was first named Southern Towne by Massachusetts, in October 1658, before it was named Stonington by Connecticut in 1666. Stonington was also claimed by Connecticut and Massachusetts Colonies, so that if someone were searching for the earliest probate records, the journey might require you to visit the Particular Court in Massachusetts.
We have to give credit to Southeastern Regional Judge Nicholas F. Kepple for making the transition from January 2011 to now seem rather easy. He recently met with the North Stonington First Selectmen to give them a progress report.
The four courts were merged because of a state-mandated cost-saving measure. At the time of the consolidation, 117 of the state’s 169 individual probate courts were operating at a loss, Kepple said. But as was noted by Selectman Shawn Murphy, the North Stonington Probate Court was not one of the courts operating at a loss.
The good news is that the court system is now in the black, Kepple told the selectmen.
The southeastern court serves about 80,000 residents in the four towns and handles about 900 matters a year. There are five clerks, who Kepple said have a combined 50 to 60 years of experience. He credits them as being responsible for the smooth operation of the new, larger court.
Probate courts deal with people when they are at their most vulnerable. Their work is important in allowing people the opportunity to move forward after a loss.
To that end, we have to commend Kepple for his series of workshops called “Demystifying Probate,” which he had held at local libraries to teach people about probate and the workings of the court. The four-session workshops have already been held in Stonington and North Stonington, and will be held in Groton beginning in September.
The court is located in the Groton Town Hall, the site of the former Groton Probate Court, so it is not a long drive for most of the townspeople it serves. The cost of maintaining it is split among the four towns.
Perhaps in another hundred years the court will be divided again. That would just be history repeating itself.