Crews Control: New probate register learns ins and outs of job

 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
Bruce Crews is just three months into his new job as the Jackson County Probate Court’s new probate register. But already he has figured out that as busy as he is, there is more he could be doing.
Technically, anyhow.
Because his staff is just three officials including himself, Crews just doesn’t have the manpower to perform all the duties the state statute says the register can do without going in front of a judge. 
Statutorily, the register can handle informal and small decedent estates. Washtenaw County has gone to a register/referee system where the register is also a referee, which permits the register to handle other uncontested decedent estates and guardianship/conservatorship of minors. That extends to holding hearings and signing orders on the judge’s behalf.
“While the parties always have the right to go to the judge, moving uncontested cases without requiring the judge’s personal involvement allows cases to move faster with less hassle for the parties,” Crews explains. “There isn’t any reason we could not adopt a similar model here.” 
The law gives broad range of potential abilities for the register, but Jackson County doesn’t have the manpower here to take on all of it. Still, Crews thinks the county has the ability to do more than what’s been done in the past. He hopes that in time the office will expand from three to four or five to better serve the public, which is one of his top priorities.
In the meantime, the variety of the work as register keeps it interesting. 
“Because we handle decedent estates, nearly everyone comes into contact with the Probate Court eventually,” says Crews. “It may be the only direct contact that an individual ever has with the court system. Helping people navigate the system at a difficult time in their lives with minimum hassle is a very rewarding experience.”
Crews went into law to help people. But sometimes the people he wants to help make the job challenging.
 “When they come to us, they are not always at their best,” he says. “They are frustrated and emotional. That’s understandable. They’re dealing with the death of a loved one, or loved ones who are not capable of caring for themselves. They’re worried about the people they care about. While helping them through that is rewarding, it is often very difficult, especially now when more and more people are doing things without the assistance of an attorney.”
Crews, 38, went to college to become a high school teacher, only to graduate at a time when there were few openings in Michigan He did some substitute teaching before going on to law school. He graduated from Cooley Law School in 2010 and was licensed a year later.
For the past two years, he was a judicial attorney for Judge Nancy C. Wheeler of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, where his duties included conducting pretrial and settlement conferences, research, writing opinions and orders, docket management, and assisting litigants and members of the public. Before that, he clerked for Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Law Clerk for Hon. Thomas D. Wilson.
Although he enjoyed working in Ann Arbor, he didn’t like the 45-mile commute every day from his Jackson home. He also likes knowing that if his daughter, Emily, 10, needs something at school, he can get there quickly.
In his limited spare time, Crews serves as the ward clerk for his Mormon church, a job that involves keeping membership, financial, and historical records. He also helps his bishop with other clerical needs, which he says is not a whole lot different from clerking for a judge.
Crews also sings first tenor with Measure for Measure, a 95-voice men’s choir in the Ann Arbor area. And he’s an adjunct professor at Cooley, where he teaches Introduction to Law.
“I basically teach them legal reasoning—how to learn to think,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Understand that what we’re teaching you here today is not something you need to get through law school only. This is what I do when I write for the judge every day. It’s what we do here every day.”

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