The cases that cross the desk of Probate Judge Isaac Jolles don’t grab many headlines. His is a docket filled with requests to become conservator of a property, family spats over wills and thorny child custody disputes.
And while the cases seem run-of-the-mill, “there is a lot of stuff that runs in the mill, I’ll tell you that” said Jolles, 80, who has presided over a splinter of the judicial system commonly known as family court since 1998.
He started his career in the Army after graduating from the University of Georgia Law School in 1953. A first lieutenant commission took him to Korea, where he served as trial counsel in General Courts Martial for three years.
Jolles recently announced that he’s retiring at the end of 2012 to spend more time with his family. In an interview last week, he shared some highlights of his long career and the challenges his replacement can expect.
First, get used to family drama “because there’s oodles of it,” he said. In Jolles’ experience, death often brings out the worst in a family. It helps matters somewhat when the deceased leaves behind a will, but even those become the source of fiery court challenges. Granting someone the right to become executor of the estate or a guardian of a relative in poor health can be just as complex. Safeguards are put into place that require guardians to report on how they spent the person’s money, but abuses still happen.
Jolles recalls a woman who turned in a report about a trip she and her cousin took to visit “Uncle Joe” in the nursing home. When Jolles questioned them about the expenses, he found they rented a luxury car for the trip, stayed in a posh hotel and racked up a large restaurant tab. “Was Uncle Joe brought along?” Jolles asked. No, he ate at the nursing home.
“You see a lot of greed, a lot of people trying to steal right out from mom and dad,” Jolles said.
There are enough positive experiences, though, to balance out the negatives he has encountered in the past 44 years practicing law.
In one instance, he represented a woman who was badly injured in a tractor-trailer accident on Washington Road. He was so confident he would win the civil case that he told the client he wouldn’t collect a dime until he won. He lost. So he appealed. He lost again. He took it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. This time he emerged the winner, but he ultimately decided that providing justice to a permanently disabled woman was a greater reward than his fee.
“It was my money in the case, but the victory was (more) worth it to me than the money in it,” he said.
Those peaks among the valleys are what keep Jolles going when the stacks on his desk start to grow. He has found that the state Legislature is fond of adding to probate court’s workload, so the court’s responsibilities have expanded over the years, including the issuance of gun permits.
“Just don’t let the work get you down,” Jolles said. “Try to work with the government to give you the help you need to get it done right.”