From Orphans to Families in Crisis: Parental Rights Matters in Maine Probate Courts
74 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2015 Last revised: 4 Feb 2016
Date Written: August 14, 2015
This Article examines the sources of the contemporary problems associated with the adjudication of parental rights matters in Maine’s probate courts and identifies specific reforms to address both the structural and substantive law problems. The Article first reviews the development of Maine’s probate courts and their jurisdiction over parental rights matters. It traces the expansion of jurisdiction over children and families from a limited role incidental to the administration of a decedent’s estate to the current scope: a range of matters that may result in the limitation, suspension, or termination of the rights of living parents. Maine probate courts now adjudicate questions implicating parental rights in a wide range of scenarios. However, the basic structure of Maine’s probate courts has remained unchanged since 1855. Maine law assigns exclusive jurisdiction of these often complex and contentious matters to a non-centralized group of county-based courts, each of which has limited resources and a single, part-time elected judge who usually has a busy law practice as his or her primary job.
The Article provides a close examination of the central issues involved in the parental rights matters currently adjudicated in the probate courts under the Maine Probate Code. It analyzes the challenges presented by the probate courts’ exclusive jurisdiction of these matters, including the incidence of conflicts and confusion when the Maine District Court has addressed a parental rights issue involving a child who is also the focus of a probate court proceeding, as well as the limitations presented by the probate courts’ structure and operation. Finally, the Article discusses potential reforms aimed at improving the adjudication of parental rights matters under the MPC, including eliminating the “split jurisdiction” between probate and district courts, structural changes to probate courts to ensure fairness and due process for all participants, and a substantive reforms to the MPC provisions concerning parental rights so that the law will better reflect the contexts in which these cases arise today and address the needs of the families involved in these cases. Combined, these proposed reforms would mitigate the acute problems described in the Article to better serve both the courts that must adjudicate these difficult cases and the families at the center of them.
Keywords: minor guardianship, family law, family courts, probate courts, jurisdiction, court reform
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