Attorneys Kieran Costello (D) and Lisa Wexler (R) both believe they have the legal experience and compassion necessary to be the next Westport/Weston probate judge.
It was a message they repeated over and over at the candidates debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Weston, Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Weston Public Library.
Debate questions and responses
Questions to the candidates were prepared by the League of Women Voters. Audience members were also allowed to submit questions, which were screened by the league.
How important is it to have a well run office for judge of probate? How many people are needed and how fast should applications be processed?
Ms. Wexler explained that this is a special election for probate judge, for a one-year term due to the resignation of Judge Kevin O’Grady, who left office because of poor health. She said there are two and a half staff members allocated to the Westport/Weston probate court and she knows them well.
She said probate staff is critical because they are the people who interface with the community and are the first to deal with tough situations such as a grieving widow. She said the current staff is incredibly kind, compassionate, and competent.
Mr. Costello said he has been friends with the probate court’s chief clerk, Shirley DeLuca, for a long time. He called her a kind-hearted clerk with a wealth of information. He said the state cut back on probate staff and has a half-time attorney on staff. He would like a full-time attorney on staff based on the court’s caseload.
What would you do for individuals and families protected by the probate court for special needs?
Mr. Costello said the probate court is responsible for the appointment of guardians and conservators for people who are not able to look after their own issues. There are two kinds of conservators, he said — conservator of the person, who helps someone make decisions, primarily medical decisions, and conservator of the estate, who helps someone who has demonstrated they can’t manage their affairs.
He said the role of a probate judge in appointing conservators is critically important because the matters are serious. He said he is currently the conservator for two individuals and has participated in more than 100 appointment of guardian proceedings in the Fairfield and Westport/Weston probate courts.
Ms. Wexler said one reason she is running for probate judge is to help people with special needs. “I am an advocate for people who can’t speak for themselves and the powerless and needy among us,” she said. She referenced an award she won from the Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents for the work she has done on behalf of those families.
She noted that while most probate court judges appoint attorneys as conservators, it is not a requirement and some attorneys charge excessive fees, as much as $400 an hour to handle a conservatorship. She said it would be her goal to educate members of the community, who would charge far less, to become conservators.
In rebuttal, Mr. Costello said new probate court rules went into effect in July that allows closer scrutiny on attorney billing. Rather than have an attorney as a conservator, he said it is always good if a family member can step up.
Ms. Wexler said she has been appointed a guardian ad litem, in a proceeding and has helped family members become guardians and conservators of their loved ones.
Mr. Costello responded that he has worked alongside family members as the conservator of the estate while another family member acted as conservator of the person.
“I think you are looking at two lawyers who have a lot of experience as lawyers,” Ms. Wexler concluded.
What is involuntary conservatorship and how does it differ from voluntary conservatorship?
Ms. Wexler said it boils down to consent. Involuntary means the person is having someone take care of themselves or their property against their consent, she said. “It’s a big deal when you don’t have the buy-in of a person with all kinds of mental conditions,” she said
If you are going to be a judge of these cases, she said, you need to look at what is in the best interest of the person short term and long term.
Mr. Costello said involuntary conservatorships are the most sad. “Somebody believes they can take care of their own affairs and they reject someone from the outside form managing their affairs. Those are tough,” he said.
He said he was once the conservator for a woman who believed animals were breaking into her condo and tearing apart her furniture. “She rejected my appointment. I worked with her delicately to let her know she is still in charge but I am there as her assistant to help her get through some awful times,” he said.
He had another case where workers at a resident’s home were taking advantage of her financially. “With involuntary conservatorships it’s clear the person can’t make decisions for themselves,” he said.
In her rebuttal, Ms. Wexler said voluntary conservatorships are often a help to a family.
What are your views with respect to adoption and would you make any changes in the system?
Mr. Costello said he and his wife are the proud parents of two adopted children who were in the audience at the debate. The role of a probate judge in overseeing adoptions is important, he said, and one of the happy things a probate judge does. He looks forward to adoption cases.
Ms. Wexler said she had close ties to adoption because her niece is adopted and a friend has adopted children. It’s a happy time, she said when you can make it a celebration to do something in the best interest of child.
On the flip side, she has also had to deal with termination of parental rights. She said there is currently an issue in Connecticut about sealed adopted records and whether adopted kids at 18 or 21 years old can have them unsealed.
Both candidates discussed their pro bono experience — legal work they do for the public good at no charge.
Mr. Costello said he is a pro bono appointee by probate court judges and superior court judges and has been on the pro bono appointment list for local probate courts for past the 15 years. “Ms. Wexler has not,” he said.
Ms. Wexler said in her practice she doesn’t solicit work from the court. “People who know me in this community know the kind of work I do and the volunteerism I have given to this community,” she said.
The probate judge debate was recorded by Al and Margaret Wirtenberg and will be broadcast on Channel 79. It is also available to view on the League of Women Voters of Weston’s website, lwvweston.org.