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Attorney Terry Lomme doesn’t wear his affection for cars on his sleeve—instead he displays it throughout his Essex office. Terry recently retired as the probate judge for the Old Saybrook District. (Photo by Rita Christopher/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Where there’s a will, there’s a…relative. Just ask Terry Lomme, the recently retired judge of probate in the Old Saybrook District, which includes nine towns: Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Westbrook, Clinton, Killingworth, Lyme, and Haddam. Terry, who was required to retire at the mandatory age of 70, is a longtime Essex resident.
Sometimes probate, which involves the distribution of assets and the payment of outstanding obligations after a person dies, goes smoothly, with just a filing of the will without a court appearance. But when there’s a contest, the parties appear in court.
“People fight about all kinds of things. Often it’s not the money. It can be about who gets the Christmas decorations; people say things like ‘Mom told me 20 years ago she was leaving that to me,’” Terry says. “It’s always the emotions that cause the problems, 99 percent emotions and financial considerations.”
Still, Terry emphasizes that each case was unique, and presented specific challenges.
“Every problem is different; there is no pattern to it,” he says.
Terry says the parties sometimes think the court proceeding will be like they’ve seen in the movies or on television.
“They think there is going to be a reading of the will, like Hollywood, but here is nothing like that. We don’t read the will,” he says.
And the courtroom doesn’t look anything like the kind where Perry Mason cross-examined witnesses. Terry, along with the parties, always sat at a long table. “Table top justice,” he says.
When he gives talks, Terry always emphasizes the importance of making a will. If a person dies intestate, without a will, estates are divided according to the intestacy laws of the State of Connecticut.
“It’s not only about money, it’s about what you want to do with your personal effects,” he says. “I’m amazed that people don’t do it, but I guess they don’t want to think about their own mortality.”
Still, probate court, as Terry points out, is about far more than last wills and testaments. The court appoints conservators for individuals who can no longer manage their own affairs. In Saybrook, the court deals with juvenile matters, like the termination of parental rights and the appointment of guardians.
“It can be very emotional and very difficult, but everything has to be in the best interests of the child,” Terry says. “It’s a fine line. You don’t want to make it an emotional hearing, but you have to understand the difficulties and be as compassionate as you can.”
There were, in addition, moments of real joy in probate court. Terry loved presiding over adoptions.
“We tried to make a big deal out of them and allow as many family and friends as possible in the ceremony, with lots of pictures afterward. If the child was old enough, usually four, I let them use the court seal to seal the documents and bang the gavel at the end of the hearing. It was really fun,” he recalls.
Terry grew up in Westport and says that what he likes about Essex is that it reminds him of the Westport of his youth. He went to what was then Eastern Connecticut State College (now part of the state university system) and has a diploma from Quinnipiac Law School. He has served as president of the Middlesex County Bar Association.
After practicing for a decade, Terry served as probate judge in East Haddam, where he and his wife Bette, a retired teacher, lived before moving to Essex.
“I was already doing probate work and it seemed like a good fit,” he explains.
In 2010, the probate system in Connecticut was reorganized; there were once probate courts in individual towns, but now there is a regional probate court system.
“The small courts were just too expensive; this is much more financially effective,” says Terry, who became the first probate judge when the reorganized Old Saybrook District Court opened in 2011.
Though there are more populous districts, the Saybrook probate district covers the second-largest geographical area in the state, with a population of some 66,000.
Probate judge is an elected position, and when Terry, a Democrat, ran for office, he took no contributions from attorneys to finance his campaigns. He did not want anything that could be interpreted as a bid for favorable treatment. He canvassed in an old-fashioned “woody” station wagon, often driving to a place where he knew he would meet people on a Saturday morning: the town dump.
On one busy Saturday morning at the dump, he met Ted Kennedy, Jr., then campaigning for a State Senate seat. (Last February, Kennedy, who has served two terms in the 12th District, announced he would not run for re-election.) Terry mentioned how rushed he felt because of the many town transfer stations he wanted to cover that morning. Kennedy had an effective answer: He told Terry how many places throughout the United States he had gone to with his father U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the senator’s abortive presidential primary challenge to Jimmy Carter.
The classic woody station wagon isn’t the only vintage car in Terry’s life. The other is his 1978 Porsche. He takes it out for cruise nights in the summer, but garages it for the winter.
“It’s always a sad day when that happens,” he says.
Even when his Porsche is in the garage, Terry always has cars in the picture, literally. His law office in Essex is decorated with automobile posters and model cars.
Terry misses the contact with the public he had during his years as probate judge and he particularly misses the clerks who worked with him when he was on the bench.
“I had a wonderful staff,” he says. He feels confident that his successor as probate judge, Jeanine Lewis will execute the responsibilities of the office with both competence and diligence.
Now that he is back in private practice in Essex, Terry thinks serving as a judge has made him an even better lawyer.
“It helps you to see all sides of things,” he says.
As for the legal profession itself, he observes, “Nobody likes lawyers until they need one, and then they are happy to have us.”
To find out more about the process of probate, visit www.ctprobate.gov.
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