While Monday’s discussion between senators and local attorneys about the new uniform probate law was somewhat scattered, it appeared there was an overall call for amendments to streamline those sections of the code that are problematic or need clarification.
But it also appeared during Monday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting that few had actually read the entire law, so the debate also centered on whether it was more expeditious to amend the old code — which is still in effect — or move ahead with the new one, which is not supposed to be implemented until July.
There was no consensus on that end, but committee chairman Sen. Usie R. Richards explained later that day’s hearing was basically called to get an overview of the issues so that senators could decide what the next steps would be.
The revised code — passed by senators in last year’s final session and subsequently signed into law by the governor — has been a bone of contention for Richards for months. Resurfacing in the 28th Legislature after years on the back burner, the 300-plus-page bill was continuously reworked before it passed last December, leaving Richards and other senators with little time to review each section.
"This is not just a piece of documentation, it’s a whole hog," Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen said Monday, as the issue of whether the bill was properly reviewed came up time and again. While Hansen called for a full repeal, others chose to defer to some of the local attorneys, who urged the committee not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
"It would be much easier to amend the new code than to go backwards," said St. Croix attorney Ellen Donovan, who added that she "got a migraine" when thinking about current code and the problems arising from it. Donovan said the new law resolves several ambiguities in the old statute, along with "limiting obstacles and resolving some central issues."
Uniform bills such as this one are drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, which is made up of a coalition of attorneys, judges and other appointees from various states and territories.
Along with seeking to streamline local laws dealing with wills and how estates are settled after death, the new law also contains provisions for a uniform power of attorney, a uniform prudent management of institutional funds act and a uniform custodial trust act.
Donovan said that a few states on the mainland have adopted similar laws, but not without revisions. She, along with several other attorneys and a few of the senators, urged that the new law be tailored to fit the territory’s unique needs and circumstances, including its new court system.
One of her biggest issues with the new law, however, is that it allows for holographic wills — a handwritten will drawn up without any witnesses — which she said creates room for fraud and abuse.
Representatives from the V.I. Bar Association testifying during Monday’s hearing said their membership went both ways in their opinions on the bill, while local attorney Donovan M. Hamm was consistent in his support of the new law, which he said was not perfect but still shaved time and expense of the current probate process.
Testifying in the afternoon, V.I. Magistrate Court Judge Alan Smith said much more has to be done before implementation of the new law goes smoothly.
"The act repealed laws that had been part of our legal landscape for decades," he said. "Rules, procedures and practices that the probate bar is very familiar with have changed dramatically."
Because of the changes, court staff will need some specialized training and education, while local attorneys need to become "thoroughly" familiar with the new law and the community better informed about its contents and how it will affect them, he said.
Smith also gave a list of possible amendments, including streamlining sections that he said "do not take into account the existing structure" of the V.I. Superior Court — particularly, the Magistrate Court, which has jurisdiction over probate matters, among other things.
Present during Monday’s hearing were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Hansen, Shawn-Michael Malone, Richards, Ronald E. Russell, Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Celestino A. White Sr.