They say that patience is a virtue, and when it comes to Massachusetts’ probate courts, they are right. Capacity limits imposed as a safety precaution to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 mean that court personnel across the Commonwealth are operating on a rotating schedule such that only a limited number are physically in the various courthouses at any one time. Naturally, this severely limits the courts’ capacity to process mail and issue important documents like Letters of Authority and Decrees and Orders of Complete Settlement, which require official stamps and seals. Our contacts at one courthouse have told us that they are as much as three months behind on processing their incoming mail as a result of the capacity limits. The limited staffing issues, coupled with the significant increase in the number of estates needing to be probated as a result of the 17,000+ deaths attributed to the pandemic over the past year, have placed a severe burden on the probate courts.
Beyond the issues created by COVID-19, there are county-specific issues that are exacerbating these delays. In Norfolk County, for example, the long-serving Register of Probate was elected Sheriff this past November and the new Register is, understandably, still learning the ropes. Meanwhile, Middlesex County not only split its Probate Court into two divisions last spring, its southern division moved from its longtime home in Cambridge to Woburn last fall and it unexpectedly lost one of its most experienced staff members around the same time.
As you can imagine, all of these factors combined have led to extreme backlogs at several courthouses such that even the processing of routine, uncontested cases can take weeks, if not months. While you can rest assured that we are diligently pursuing every avenue possible to ensure that our probate cases are processed in as expeditious a manner as possible, ultimately it will take time for the courts to work through these backlogs.