Agency History #1738

CREATION With the creation of Utah Territory in 1850, federal law gave county probate courts authority over the estates of deceased persons and over the guardianship of minors and the incompetent. The Federal Government established district courts with Federally appointed judges to adjudicate civil, criminal and chancery matters. At odds with Federal authority, the Second Territorial Legislature established control by expanding the jurisdiction of county probate courts to include civil and criminal cases, thus granting them parallel jurisdiction with district courts. (Laws of Utah, Chapter 42, 1852). In 1869, the Territorial Legislature further expanded the county probate courts' authority by designating the courts as vehicles through which town site lands could be conveyed to private ownership (Laws of Utah, Chapter 7, 1869). Probate Courts adjudicated claims and issued deeds of conveyance. In 1874, Washington checked the expanded power of Utah's county probate courts with the Poland Act, which revoked the probate court's jurisdiction over criminal cases and also over all civil cases except divorce. In 1887, the Edmunds-Tucker Act revoked jurisdiction over divorces, and with statehood probate courts were abolished altogether. The Fifth District Court assumed jurisdiction previously held by the Washington County Probate Court.

FUNCTIONS From 1856, when the county government of Washington County was officially organized, the Washington County Probate Court handled civil and criminal cases in addition to the estate and guardianship matters traditionally handled by probate courts. Civil cases included divorce, naturalization, debt collection and such things as mortgage foreclosures and disputes over ownership of animals. Criminal cases heard by the Washington County Probate Court included murder, rape, larceny, robbery, and contempt of court. In 1872 the Probate Court began holding special sessions to adjudicate land claims in Washington County's cities and towns. In 1874, the Probate Court ceased to handle criminal or civil cases with the exception of divorces. It ceased handling divorce cases in 1887.

ADMINISTRATION The Territorial Legislature initially appointed probate court judges, and the Governor issued their commissions. In practice, probate judges were often also Mormon ecclesiastical leaders. John D. Lee, Washington County's first probate judge, was a Mormon Church leader and also a former member of the Council of Fifty, Salt Lake City's pioneer governing body. When the Poland Act was passed (1874), probate judges became publicly elected officials, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act (1887) provided that probate judges should be appointed by the President of the United States.

ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY Territorial probate courts consisted of a probate judge and a clerk. The courts met quarterly in March, June, September and December. From 1856 to 1865, the Washington County Probate Court met at the Judge's home or at the school in Washington. Beginning in 1865 the Court convened in St. George, the newly created Washington County seat. Up until 1880, when the clerk became an elected official, the Probate Judge appointed his own clerk. As originally established, the probate judge and clerk also presided over the County Court, which later became the County Commission.

John D. Lee,1856-Dec 1858
James D. McCullough, Jan 1859-Mar 1870
William Snow, Mar 1870-June 1878
John M. Macfarlane, Sept 1878-Aug 1883
Edwin G. Wooley, Dec 1883-Oct 1888
Francis L. Daggett, Oct 1888-Oct 1892
Martin Slack, Oct 1892-Mar 1894
Edwin G. Wooley, Apr 1894-Feb 1896

COMPILED BY: Rosemary Cundiff, , October 2000


Alder, Douglas D. and Karl E. Brooks. A History of Washington County, Utah State Historical Society, Washington County Commission, 1996.

Allen, James B. "The Unusual Jurisdiction of County Probate Courts in the Territory of Utah." Utah Historical Quarterly 36 (Spring 1968): 132-142.

Legislature. Laws of Utah, (Series 83155).

Powell, Jay E. "Fairness in the Salt Lake County Probate Court." Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (Summer 1970): 256-262.

Washington County Probate Court. Record Books, Book A, B, and D, (Series 3168).

Page Last Updated July 2, 2003.