A visit to the Register in Probate’s office isn’t on anyone’s must-do lists for their Door County visit, but when two college students from Switzerland visited the office a couple years ago it took them on a journey of family discovery.
“They knew they had some family that had come to this county,” Door County Register in Probate Judy Schneider said. “So they came here looking for records to try and find a lead and maybe find some descendents.”
The two students spent the better part of a day looking for the trail of their relatives with Schneider’s help, and were eventually able to trace the family tree back through wills and death notices. Schneider brought the original documents out of deep storage so that they could physically touch a part of their family’s past. Their digging would take them beyond old paperwork when they went to a cemetery to visit the grave of one of the relatives they found.
They found a grave with fresh flowers on it, a hint that a relative was still around. They gave Schneider another call.
“It turned out that I knew the name on the grave, and I actually knew the spouse who had left the flowers,” Schneider said. She gave them the number of the relative, and they ended up meeting a long-lost relation. “That was probably one of my favorite days in this job.”
Schneider retired in February after 22 years as Door County’s Register in Probate. Attorney Jennifer Moeller has been appointed to replace her in the newly merged Court Commissioner and Register in Probate position.
Schneider came to the job from what was then Pinkert Smith Koehn and Weir Law Firm (now Pinkert Law Firm LLP), where she was the legal assistant to Attorney John Koehn, handling probate cases. When Koehn became judge, he appointed Schneider to the position.
Helping the Swiss students delve into their past was a welcome break from the norms of a largely unsung job that Door County Judge Peter Diltz called very difficult to describe.
“If I were to walk down the hall and take her position, I don’t know if I would know where to start,” he said.
The Register in Probate is charged with filing estate matters to facilitate the orderly transfer of assets, in addition to filing guardianships, trusts, and mental health commitments and monitoring those files through to completion.
It sounds like a very technical job, and it is, but it often goes well beyond technicalities. Schneider has met with hundreds of family members in the difficult first days after a loved one has passed.
“Not only is it a very technical position, where you really need to know state statutes, but it takes people skills,” Diltz said. “It’s not an easy combination to find, but she has the personal skills to do it. People come in, typically, a day or two after someone has died. She has to guide them through how to take care of the estate, to pay the bills, and help people. It really takes a wide diversity of skills, and we’re very fortunate she’s had them.”
Schneider said every case was different. The Register in Probate must present families with all of their options for executing an estate but can’t give legal advice. It’s a fine line to walk, and not always easy when people are in such an emotional situation.
“Some meetings take longer than others,” she said. “I try to be compassionate, and give them the time they need, but I also have to give them the information to move forward and explain all the different ways an estate can be done. I’m patient. Some people have the need to tell that story of the person, and I listen. That’s something that you acquire over the years working with people.”
Diltz said Schneider did her job so well that it would have been easy to take her for granted.
“She’s so thorough and professional that it made our jobs so much easier,” he said, a sentiment shared by Door County Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas.
“Judy knew her job inside and out,” Thomas said. “She paid great attention to detail and was always on top of things, and she was great with people. She was really everything you would want in a public servant.”
As interest in family histories has grown, so have the number of genealogy requests Schneider has handled, like that of the Swiss students. While some don’t like handling the requests, Schneider said she loves diving into local history.
“Probably the most rewarding part of my job is helping families in a time of need,” she said. “But helping families find a piece of their past is pretty rewarding too. You can find a lot of information in old probate files. I’m going to miss this job.”