FAIRFIELD — The death of Probate Judge Daniel Caruso this year opened up the race for the judgeship, which the Republican had held since 1995.

The race pits Democrat Kate Neary Maxham, who has worked as the staff attorney in the Probate Court, against the GOP candidate, Bryan LeClerc, a local attorney who previously served on the Representative Town Meeting and the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.

Just what role does a probate judge play?

Maxham said a probate judge needs to have extensive knowledge across a variety of legal fields. “People look to the probate court for help, in good times and bad,” Maxham said. “Among other things, a probate judge handles delicate family matters, approves the distribution of estate assets and trust funds, manages the appointment of conservators for those unable to manage their own affairs and oversees guardianship for minors and adults with disabilities,” she said.

While there are guidelines and statutes, Maxham said, a probate judge has to rely on experience and knowledge, because no two situations are exactly alike. “I would say the most important job for a probate judge is to be compassionate, knowledgeable, experienced and prepared to rule fairly regardless of what type of matter is before the court,” Maxham said.

“A probate judge helps people at some of the most difficult times in their lives,” LeClerc, who has received the endorsement of the Independent Party, said. “The probate judge must be there when a loved one dies, when a family member is unable to manage his affairs and requires a conservator or requires a guardian for a child, and when a child needs protection from abuse and neglect.”

The probate judge must be someone people know and can trust, LeClerc said, and someone who has spent a career as a practicing attorney “helping people solve real problems, with compassion and commitment. “He must have legal knowledge and the common sense to apply it appropriately to help make a resident’s quality of life better, help maintain their dignity, remain in their home or keep them safe.”

For many people, the probate judge job has been seen for many years as a cushy way to to make easy money.

LeClerc said the probate judge is elected by the people to help and protect them. “The position of probate judge should be held by a person with experience representing individuals in personal and family matters, not a political appointee, or career or long-term government or court employee,” he said.

Saying he has never held a political patronage job, nor will he, LeClerc said, “Probate judge will not be a promotion for me; it is a position for someone with knowledge, integrity, respect and legal experience,” he said. “I have practiced law for over 30 years, helping real people and families solve real-life problems. My community service has always been done with a desire to serve the community, not for personal advancement or gain.”

Among recent reforms made to the Probate Court system is the way judges are compensated. After court expenses are paid, an assessment of the net income, based on population and workload, is paid to the Court Administration Fund. The balance is kept as compensation to the probate judge, up to a maximum of $110,085. State law says the probate judge compensation cannot exceed 75 percent of a Superior Court judge’s salary.

“Probate Court judges are the only elected judges in the state of Connecticut,” Maxham said. “Inherent in that will always be the perception that those individuals nominated are being thanked for their services to their party.”

However, she said, widespread reforms enacted in 2009 included stricter qualifying requirements for candidates in order to be nominated for the position. Probate judges must be attorneys and a member of the state bar and there is a code of ethics established. “But in reality, the only way to change the perception of patronage is to demonstrate to all constituents that politics plays no role in the Probate Court,” Maxham said.

Here in Fairfield, Maxham said, the probate judge position has never been a political “fix” and she said she hopes it doesn’t become one. “Judge Caruso brought immeasurable commitment and devotion to the court, and earned the trust and respect of all who appeared before him,” she said. “That’s why he was unopposed and re-elected time and time again.