When Dana Hanley was elected probate judge in Oxford County 17 years ago, the registrar and clerks were using typewriters to fill out standard forms and to prepare orders for him to sign. Under Hanley’s leadership and in consultation with and cooperation from all 16 counties, the probate courts are the first in Maine to move into the 21st century.

Slowly but surely since 2006, the courts responsible for dealing with estates, adoptions, conservatorships, adult and minor guardianships and name changes have been working toward going paperless, Susan Almy, registrar of probate for Penobscot County, said recently.

Eventually, nearly all probate court documents will be available on www.maineprobate.net. Financial and medical documents still will be available at county courthouses but not online, she said. Adoption records filed after Aug. 8, 1953, are sealed by state law.

There is no charge to search for and view documents, she said. There is a $2 per page charge to print documents unless the individual printing them also filed them. Lawyers and individuals who regularly file and print documents pay a $10 monthly registration fee. Registered users pay less per page to print documents.

Next year, lawyers will be required to file electronically and people representing themselves will be able to file court documents using online forms, Almy said.

Hanley estimated that now more than 90 percent of the attorneys who regularly represent clients in probate court use the e-filing system. Individuals who represent themselves, for the most part, download the forms available online, fill them out and either mail them to the courts or file them in person.

The state court system that handles criminal and civil cases is looking into obtaining software that would support e-filing, according to Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the judiciary.

Herding cats

Getting all the probate judges, registrars and county commissioners to agree to one system for filing documents and the software all would use was a bit like corralling felines, Hanley, an attorney in South Paris, said recently. The probate courts do not have a centralized administrative office as the state court system does.

“While ‘herding cats’ is an overused metaphor, it is more than appropriate in this instance, since each county in Maine is basically its own fiefdom and operates independently from all of the other counties,” he said.

Hanley said the probate courts saw the problems the county registries of deeds encountered and the costs incurred because they were not all using the same software.

“Instead of each county paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their own vendors design it, we negotiated fixed purchase costs and annual maintenance fees pro-rated for each county based on population,” he said.

Hanley said Cumberland County, the most populous county, paid about $25,000 of the $525,000 purchase price in 2006. That cost covered the first five years of the program for all 16 counties. Penobscot County paid about $13,700 for the software and pays $2,860 a year for maintenance, Almy said.

Reaction positive

Frank Bemis, an attorney in Presque Isle, said that he and his staff “love e-filing.” In Aroostook County, it could take a couple of hours to drive to the probate court in Houlton to file in person, he said.

“The mail could get there anytime,” Bemis said. “Then you had to call or wait to get confirmation it had arrived. With e-filing, we know immediately it has arrived.”

The probate courts will not accept faxed documents, he said.

“We are saving money in postage but the convenience is more important than the savings,” he said.

E-filing has not lessened the workload for probate court staff, according to Almy.

It doesn’t free up time, but eventually, it will free up space, she said, pointing to the floor-to-ceiling movable metal shelves that hold the hundreds of thousands of documents filed in Penobscot County since. 1816.

Backlog of records

While the probate courts are moving toward a paperless system, getting all documents online is going to take years, according to Almy.

“Images of our documents have been scanned from 2004 forward,” Almy said. “Before that, it is random. If someone calls we will scan a particular file. We’ve scanned a few of the very old files.

“We have digitized our index so the names and the documents on the docket are available from the early 1990s, although the images of those documents have not been scanned,” she said. “So, an individual can search for a name and find it but cannot view the documents. That’s when they would call us about it.”

Depending on age and condition, the documents might be scanned and uploaded to the website or they might only be viewable in person, she said.

Public use

Probate court documents are helpful to genealogists and people interested in filling in the branches of their family trees, according to Roxanne Saucier, author of the Family Ties column for the Bangor Daily News.

Saucier said that probate court records can be used in some instances to join lineage societies such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or by people who just want to know more about their families and how certain parcels of real estate or personal property was passed down.