‘I Do Cry On The Bench’: The Pandemic Put Added Pressure On Probate Judges To Make Tough Family Decisions

Over 51,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, which means probate judges are busier than ever helping families sort out the estates of loved ones who died unexpectedly.

By Joy DiazJuly 14, 2021 6:58 am, ,

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Read Part 1.

Three years ago, Bexar Couny attorney Veronica Vasquez was on the brink of a new chapter in her career. She was a first-time judicial candidate and she won her race to be a probate judge. Vasquez was exited to work in probate because she argues it’s the court that touches most people’s lives.

“You may never end up in a criminal court or know somebody you love that ends up in a criminal court. Or perhaps you never have a civil issue and you never have to be sued or sue someone, but somebody you know and love will die,” Vasquez said.

Her friend from law school, Jo Anne Garcia, was also running for probate judge hundreds of miles away in Hidalgo County.

Both women won their races and were sworn in in January 2019.

But just when they were getting the hang of the job, the pandemic hit Texas. Suddenly, the two rookie judges had to recreate their courts virtually. On top of that, their caseloads skyrocketed because of mounting coronavirus deaths.

Then, the emotional toll began to set in.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of husband-and-wife deaths; those are very, very sad because they die within a couple of days of each other because husband will get it and then wife will get it, and they die within a couple of days,” Vazquez said. “There are times when I do cry on the bench.”

RELATED: More Than 51,000 Texans Have Died From COVID-19. Many Of Them Didn’t Have Wills.

In Hidalgo County, probate cases rose by as much as 300% in a month during the fall of 2020. Garcia remembers one case that was particularly troubling.

“We had a father that had died of COVID, and the daughter had applied to probate father’s will. And before she could come to the hearing, she passed of COVID and her brother had to take over her spot,” she said.

Joy Díaz/Texas Standard

Ulisses and Omar Correa Morales. Omar is now Ulisses' legal guardian, after their mom died from COVID-19 in 2020.

Probate courts deal with people’s estates, whether they had a will or not, and cases can be heard by judges in any of the state’s 254 counties. Probate judges also appoint guardians for those who cannot take care of themselves. That’s the reason 46-year-old Omar Correa Morales ended up in Vasquez’s court in San Antonio. His mom had died from COVID-19 in July 2020. She did not have a will. What’s more, she had sole guardianship of her youngest son, 39-year-old Ulisses Correa Morales who was born with Down syndrome.

When his mom died, Omar says he struggled about how to tell Ulisses; she meant everything to him.

“He already knew something was up,” Omar said. “He’d follow me around [and ask], ‘Who was it?’ ‘What’s going on?’ But he’s happy right now, considering what is going on.”

What’s going on is that Omar has been made Ulisses’ legal guardian. Judge Vasquez made that call.

“That’s always heartbreaking because you know that they’re leaving behind a child that can’t take care of themselves,” Vasquez said.

Not all probate judges are as well-trained as Vasquez and Garcia to handle the normal pressures of probate court, let alone the pressures that have come with making these decisions for families during a pandemic. One Travis County probate judge told Texas Standard that the vast majority of Texas probate judges are not attorneys.

Inadequate training, plus judges’ regular caseload from non-COVID-19 deaths related to Texas’ growing elderly population, mean judges have been pushed to their limits lately.

While the average Texan may feel like the state is going back to normal, probate judges know they’ll be dealing with the ripple effects of the pandemic for years to come.

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