How Does the Indiana Probate Court Work?
In the state of Indiana, probate matters are typically handled by the Circuit Courts or the Superior Courts. St. Joseph is the only county in Indiana with an independent Probate Court. The court handles estates matters.
Also, it has limited jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal cases heard in the county. The St. Joseph County Probate Court has original concurrent jurisdiction with the Circuit Courts and the Superior Courts over matters that involve protected individuals and guardianships, administration of decedent’s estates, and trust administration.
The St. Joseph Probate Court hears the following types of cases:
- Matters involving wills, adoptions, and paternity disputes
- Mental health hearings
- Certain domestic relations matters, such as divorce, child visitation rights, and child support matters (The court has a family division that handles these types of matters)
- Civil matters where the amount in controversy does not exceed $6,000 (The court has a small claims docket that handled these types of cases)
- Level 6 felony cases, misdemeanor cases, infraction cases, ordinance violation cases (The St. Joseph Probate Court has a minor offenses and violations docket that handles these types of matters)
- Juvenile matters, including juvenile delinquency cases, children in need of services cases, and paternity cases, as well as the administration of the county’s Juvenile Justice Center. (The Probate Court has exclusive jurisdiction over these types of cases in St. Joseph County)
In addition to this, as stipulated by Indiana Code § 33–31–1–9, the St. Joseph Probate Court also has de novo appellate jurisdiction over the Indiana Town and City Courts (de novo appeals refer to appeals based on a trial court’s interpretation or application of the law).
Before an individual can become a St. Joseph Probate Court judge, they must be a county resident. This individual must also be licensed to practice law in the state of Indiana. A Probate Court judge is elected by the legal voters of the county in partisan elections every six years. Elected judges can serve for as many successive terms as possible before the age of 75. Once a judge turns 75 in Indiana, the judge is required to retire from active duty.
Once elected, a Probate Court judge may appoint three magistrates. These magistrates shall have some administrative and judicial duties in the court, which include:
- Administration of oaths or affirmations as required by law
- Taking and certifying affidavits and dispositions
- Ordering the issuance of a subpoena in matters pending before the court
- Compelling the attendance of a witness
- Punishing individuals found in contempt of court
- Issuing warrants and set bail
- Conducting preliminary and other pre-trial hearings
- Conducting evidentiary hearings or trials
- Receiving a jury’s verdict
- Approving agreed settlements concerning civil matters
- Enforcing the rules of the court
Individuals that are appointed as Probate Court magistrates are required to be licensed Indiana state law practitioners. Upon appointment, the magistrate is prohibited from engaging in the practice of law for the appointment duration.
The length of time a probate court case takes usually depends on the type of matter being heard and the individuals involved. Parties have the right to appeal decisions rendered by this court. These appeals are typically made to the Indiana Court of Appeals. However, note that, in the Indiana court system, any party that wishes to begin the appellate process must do so not later than 30 days after the decision in the case has been rendered. Appeal cases typically take an average of four to six months.
Court records are considered public records in the state of Indiana. Members of the public who wish to access St. Joseph Probate Court records may utilize the case search website provided and maintained by the Indiana court system. Through this website, interested parties can obtain court records by performing searches using the case number, the names of the parties involved in the case, or the attorneys’ names. Note that, even though court records are public records, given the sensitive nature of some of the cases heard in the St. Joseph Probate Court, access to some of these records may be restricted to only authorized parties.
Alternatively, interested persons may obtain court records in person by visiting the St. Joseph Probate Clerk’s office. The office is open to the public between 8:00 a.m.—4:30 p.m, Monday through Friday. Copies of a court record are obtained at a fee, upon the presentation of a valid photo ID may also be required.
The St. Joseph Probate Court can be contacted at:
St. Joseph County Probate Court
Juvenile Justice Center
1000 S Michigan St
South Bend, IN 46601
Phone: (574) 235–5371
Hours: 8:00 a.m.—4:30 p.m., Mondays to Fridays