Bill would eliminate elected register of wills offices

DOVER — Legislation introduced last week would eliminate the offices of the registers of wills, moving them under the umbrella of the Court of Chancery. While residents of each county currently elect a register for their county, the bill would change the Delaware Constitution, creating one unified register of wills office under the judiciary.

The idea for the bill comes largely from the Court of Chancery, which handles many disputes related to wills, meaning work is often duplicated by the county register and the court.

The three registers of wills each have a register’s court, which can handle disputes and transfer them to the Court of Chancery if need be. Should the legislation pass, one register, appointed by the chancellor, would hold office statewide, with staff in each county.

“The good news is that the income from the work would still go to the various counties, so there would not be a loss of income,” main sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, said.

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry

Cutting the elected office would simplify the will process, she said.

The register of wills dates back at least 300 years in Delaware. Row offices like the register of wills may appear unnecessary today, but an effort by lawmakers to eliminate the county clerks of the peace in 2014 was unsuccessful. However, the General Assembly did do away with the last remaining county comptroller earlier this year, citing the lack of need for the office due to the county auditor’s increased role.

Sen. Henry said other row offices, which generally require specific knowledge, could be cut in the future but she is currently focused on the register of wills.

The proposal has a limited number of sponsors, but that is not necessarily an obstacle to passage, especially as it is supported by the judiciary.

The bill does have a Republican backer, one who has specific knowledge of and interest in the register of wills: Rep. David Wilson, R-Bridgeville, who served as Sussex County register of wills for two years before being elected to the Legislature.

Rep. David Wilson

Rep. David Wilson

Current employees in a register’s office would be transferred to the state, while the shift would also save money, he said.

As a by-product of a unified court system, some costs would likely increase for Sussex County residents. Because of that, the 35th Representative District Republican Committee took the unusual step of criticizing Rep. Wilson, who holds the office for the district, for his support of the bill.

“The bill is a guaranteed tax and fee increase on Sussex County residents! A number of taxes and fees are significantly lower in Sussex than in Kent and New Castle counties,” the committee said in a statement released by Chairman Jordan Warfel.

“If Chancery Court has its way, they will raise our taxes and fees to the same as those up state, including a 40 percent increase in the estate closing tax from 1.25 percent to 1.75 percent! We will also be losing our local control to upstate liberal bureaucrats. Instead of having taxes, fees and expenses decided by our local elected representatives, they will be decided by unelected tax and spend liberals. We are calling on Dave Wilson to recant his support for this liberal takeover!”

Rep. Wilson said he was not concerned about the potential higher costs because they would not impact the average taxpayer on a daily basis.

Kent County register of wills Harold Brode said he did not know enough about the bill to take a firm stand on it.

The legislation is in the Senate Executive Committee.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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