September 23, 2014

Registers of Wills feel misunderstood, but most unopposed for reelection

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last will and testament
Photo above by Ken Mayer with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Lejla Sarcevic

Capital News Service

Everyone knows about the certainty of death and taxes. But in Maryland, many also must face a register of wills.

Marylanders will vote for the position in November – the office is on the ballot every four years – but many are unsure what the job entails.

“It is one of the most misunderstood offices in the state of Maryland,” said Calvert County Register of Wills Margaret Phipps, a Democrat who was first elected in 1978.

“A lot of people literally take the register of wills as a register of wills,” said Charlotte Cathell, D-Worcester County, who has held the job since 1998.

Each county elects one

Each county and Baltimore City have a register of wills, although it is a state government office. The register of wills handles the administration of all probate matters. While they cannot give legal advice, Phipps explained, a register assists and helps persons that need to open an estate of someone who has died. Registers also serve as clerks of each jurisdiction’s orphans’ court.

As a courtesy, they also keep wills of living persons, though those remain sealed until the owner’s death, and the original will permanently remains with the register.

Cathell is the organizer of the annual Register of Wills Association Conference – a two-day event in Ocean City where registers meet for workshops and speakers.

The biannual conference, held this week, is an opportunity for them to address the ongoing issue of uniformity across all registers.

“Everyone’s office has its own little peculiarities, mine included,” Cathell said.

James Phelps, R-Caroline County, said that the aim of the conference is to go over any new laws that might come into effect Oct. 1. Phelps was elected in 2010 and is running unopposed this election cycle.

“It’s like any office, interpretation a lot of times can vary. We work very hard to make sure that we are uniform,” Phelps said.

Only three states in the union maintain the position: Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. In most states, wills and estates are handled in the probate divisions of county courts.

Many are career civil servants

Many of these individuals are career civil servants. Democrat Debbie Callahan and Republican Laura Cook, who are running against each other for register of wills in Queen Anne’s County, have worked under the current register, Winsie A. Cannon, for 20 and 15 years respectively, according to their campaign Facebook pages. Cook was unavailable for comment and Callahan did not respond to requests for an interview. Cannon was first elected in 1986.

The Queen Anne’s County race is one of the few contested register of wills elections in the state. Sixteen of the 24 current registers are running unopposed: Three are not seeking re-election and five incumbents are facing opponents.

Historically, it has been difficult to unseat an incumbent. Loraine Hennessy D- Charles County, managed to do it in 2010 after the incumbent, Susie Bowles, requested that county officials add her to the county retirement plan, despite already being enrolled in the state’s pension plan. Charles County commissioners reversed their decisions after the state comptroller’s office informed them it was improper.

Bowles’s re-election campaign did not survive the ethical concerns.

Not very political

Although register of wills candidates declare a party affiliation when they run, unlike more high profile races such as county executive or governor, the job tends to be a position void of politics.

“I’m not a fan of elections – I love serving people but I don’t like putting myself front and center,” Phipps said. “It’s not my cup of tea. I was brought up to help people and have compassion for them.”

Phipps is facing a challenger this election, Republican Mark Lynch. Lynch has worked as an attorney specializing in estate and probate matters. He said that he is running because his father, who was a judge, encouraged him to enter public service at the end of his career.

Salaries raised by 16%

A register’s salary does not hurt the decision to run. The state Board of Public Works on Sept. 17 approved a 16 percent increase for all registers.

The board was able to increase the salary thanks to a 2013 bill that lifted the salary cap, Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County, said. The last time the cap was lifted was in 2005, when the maximum pay was set at $98,500, which means that raise amounts to about a 1.5 percent annual increase.

The registers’ salaries are determined by the size of the county they oversee because the revenue for them comes from the fees and inheritance taxes they collect. The maximum pay for a register in a smaller county such as Garrett will increase from $86,100 to $100,086 while registers of large counties like Prince George’s will receive the maximum $114,500.

Attached to the measure was a fiscal and policy note from the Department of Legislative Services stating that the increase “is intended to allow for the registers of wills’ salaries to increase in a manner comparable to the cumulative cost-of-living increases that other State employees have received since 2005.”

Some legislators unhappy with raise

At the time, some legislators were not happy with the raise.

Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, voted against the increase. “I don’t think we’re underpaid or overpaid. It’s enough, I don’t buy it,” he said. “Everybody comes in pushing for raises. If you want a raise, go work in the private sector.”

Frosh, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said that the increase was deserved because the registers’ job is important.

“It requires real expertise and excellent management skills and management of a pretty large office,” Frosh said.