Probate court judges preside over a wide array of matters. These judges decide whether wills are valid, hear will contests and oversee the distribution of decedents' estates. They also determine whether a person is mentally incapacitated to the extent that a guardianship or conservatorship is appropriate. Generally, probate court judges have law degrees and must practice law for a state-mandated number of years before obtaining a seat on the bench.
Generally, probate courts are divisions of circuit courts, which are state trial courts of general jurisdiction. This means probate courts are also courts of general jurisdiction. Thus, salary information for trial court judges applies to probate court judges. In its "Survey of Judicial Salaries," the National Center for State Courts reports an annual salary range of $104,170 to $180,802 for probate court judges, with a median salary of $132,500 as of January of 2012.
The NCSC 2012 survey gives detailed information concerning regional differences in probate court judges' salaries. According to the survey, Illinois probate court judges earned an average annual salary of $180,802 -- the highest in the nation. California ranked second highest; its probate court judges earned an average annual salary of $178,789. In Texas, the average annual salary of probate court judges was $132,500. New York probate court judges earned an average annual salary of $136,700. South Dakota ranked near the bottom, paying its probate judges an average annual salary of $110,377. Mississippi probate court judges earned the least -- $104,170, on average.
Additional Contributing Factors
Depending on the state, certain factors influence the amount a probate court judge can earn. Often, these factors include the population of the county where the judge presides and whether the judge takes on nonprobate-related cases. In Georgia, for example, probate court judges earn more if they conduct elections; longevity also contributes to higher pay. Additionally, Georgia probate court judges who handle nonprobate-related cases -- such as traffic cases -- receive higher pay. In Michigan, if probate court judges agree to preside over family law cases, such as child custody and divorce, they receive an increase in salary.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2010 and 2020, employment for judges should grow by only 7 percent -- slower than average, compared to other occupations. Longevity of employment for probate court judges varies by state. Some probate judges must run in partisan elections; if elected, they serve for terms ranging from three to six years, but are free to seek re-election upon expiration of their term. Some states have a merit and retention method for probate court judges. Under this method, judges may keep their seats on the bench indefinitely -- provided evaluations of their performance remain positive.