Tennessee Court Records
How Does the Tennessee Probate Court Work?
The Tennessee probate court is a court with exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters in Tennessee. Generally, this court has exclusive jurisdiction over conservatorship and guardianship cases as well as probate and trust matters, i.e., wills and administration of estates of deceased and incapacitated residents. However, it may share concurrent jurisdiction over probate cases with the Chancery and Circuit Courts.
Generally, judges in the probate courts follow the Probate Court Manual for the adjudication of cases. Concerned litigants can also use the manual to research how the law applies to their circumstances and the rules of procedure for filing a claim. In adjudicating a case, the probate court does not conduct a jury trial unless a party demands it. Instead, the mode of operation is a bench trial where judges decide based on state statutes and the body of common law. If dissatisfied with the verdict, a litigant may appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which reviews the case to find reversible errors in the judgment or trial procedure.
According to statistical reports, Tennessee probate courts handle about 6,000 cases annually. This caseload accounts for just over 2% of the judiciary caseload. Tennessee laws do not impose a time limitation on the probate cases generally. However, cases involving letters of testamentary or letters of administration must begin within ten years of the decedent’s death. Otherwise, claims arising under these cases are considered by state laws as null and void (Tenn. Code. Ann. § 30–1–110(3)). Meanwhile, the time until adjudication varies with the case’s complexity and the court’s caseload.
Probate court judges come into office following a partisan election—although the legislature may mandate a non-partisan election. The winner of the election shall hold office for eight (8) years, after which the state conducts another election. The incumbent judge may contest in the new election if he/she so wishes.
In any way, a judgeship candidate must be admitted into the state bar and authorized to practice law in Tennessee. Furthermore, he/she must be at least thirty (30) years old and have lived in the state for five (5) years. In addition to these constitutional and statutory requirements, a candidate for probate court judgeship must have resided in the district for at least one (1) year before the election (Tenn. Const., Art. VI, Sec. 4; Tenn. Code. Ann. § 16–4–102; Tenn. Code. Ann. § 16–5–102).
At present, there are 35 judges in Tennessee. All judges must follow the Tennessee Code of Judicial Conduct and the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conductas with circuit court judges. The law makes provisions for removing an erring judge under certain circumstances, including misconduct and incapacitation.
The Trial Court Vacancy Commission is primarily responsible for nominating eligible candidates to the governor. The nomination follows a systematic process of an announcement, solicitation of applicants, public hearings, and interviews. Finally, the Commission shall select and present three finalists to the governor, who appoints one of these candidates to the vacant office. The acting judge shall perform the office’s duties until the term is over, after which he/she may contest in partisan elections.
Meanwhile, apart from retirement and resignation, active judges generally leave office in one of two ways:
Removal: Following a recommendation by the court or the Board of Judicial Authority, the legislature shall convene for a General Assembly where two-thirds of each house is necessary to remove a judge. Removal proceedings typically following a disciplinary action or investigation into incapacitation Tenn. Code Ann. § 17–5–302. The aggrieved judge may, however, appeal the removal to the Supreme Court.
Impeachment and Conviction: Here, an impeachment action against a serving judge must garner a two-thirds vote of the house of representatives. After that, conviction by a two-thirds vote of the Senate is necessary.
Interested persons who wish to obtain probate court records must contact the Clerk of Court’s office. Court records are generally considered public records under the Tennessee Public Records Act, except when the record contains sensitive or confidential information. Suppose the disclosure of the contents of a court record constitutes financial, privacy, or security risks to the persons named on the document. In that case, a statutory provision or court order shall direct the Clerk to sequester the record from public perusal. Sealed court records are still available under limited circumstances and to authorized entities with vested interests in the case documents.
Either way, a requester who wishes to obtain Tennessee probate court records must provide the necessary details to facilitate a search. He/she must also cover the costs of searching, reproducing, and certifying physical copies of requested records. The general means of access is in person or by mail request. Interested persons may use the court directory to find the location and contact information of the record custodian in the probate, chancery, or circuit court that handled the probate case. The Tennessee judiciary does not maintain a central repository for online access to public court records, but interested persons may obtain archived court records from the State Library and Archives.