Probate judges are in charge of determining how a person's will is executed after his or her death. To become a probate judge in the United States, a person must first pass the bar and become a lawyer. Most states require a lawyer to have held a license for a minimum number of years before becoming a probate judge; most states also have residency and age requirements. From there, the process of becoming a probate judge varies by jurisdiction. There are three primary paths to the position: being appointed, being selected, or being elected by the general populace in partisan or non-partisan elections.
In some states, probate judges are appointed by the governor, something that may happen elsewhere when there is a vacancy on the bench between elections. A person who wants to become a probate judge in a state where governors make the appointments will likely have to submit an application to a judicial screening or nominating committee. The committee will then submit its recommendations to the governor to use in making a choice. For example, in Iowa, probate judges are screened by a magistrate nominating commission. Members of this commission include a district court judge, two attorneys and up to three non-lawyer members.
Another relatively uncommon way to become a probate judge is through commission or legislative selection. These are sometimes combined with gubernatorial appointments. Other times, a candidate who wants to become a probate judge applies to a senior judge or to the commission. The selection process is treated much like the selection process for jobs in the business world, with the candidate being interviewed by potential supervisors and undergoing reference checks.
In most U.S. states, candidates must win an election to become a probate judge. There are two main forms of election: partisan and non-partisan. Partisan elections for probate judgeships are less common but not unheard of. In a partisan election, judges must be appointed by his political party or be chosen through primary elections.
More common are non-partisan elections at the county or local level. To become a probate judge in a state where non-partisan elections are held, a candidate must apply to get on the ballot. The candidate should then campaign like any other elected official, though most judge races are more low-key and dignified than legislative and executive races. After the election, the winning candidate is sworn in as a probate judge. Terms tend to range from six to 10 years.
In states where probate judges are appointed or elected, they may have to undergo a retention election during the next election cycle or after a set amount of time. A retention election is not an opposed election, but rather one in which the populace votes to approve or disapprove the judge. If the judge does not win approval, he or she is replaced by a new appointment or selection.